Librarians believe in the power of stories. Many of us tend to think of life as a series of interwoven narratives, and in fact when someone in my family is working through a problem, I often wonder with some anticipation, “How is this story going to end?”
Even so, I was struck by the power of story in a new way while listening to a report on the radio this week about a new project to engage senior adults with dementia.
Full disclosure: my husband and I take care of my father, who is 91 and who has dementia. He is very high functioning, and can negotiate most of the activities of daily living just fine. However, one thing I have learned in the three years he has lived with us is that he does not like for me to ask him things. His stock response is, “I can’t answer that question.” My queries can range from who the Detroit Tigers are playing that night to what he had for lunch. To me, they are just innocent conversation-starters; to him, they are a Mt. Everest he is not able to climb. So I have learned to talk about how well the Tigers are doing, or how good the Russet potatoes I bought are, and then he seems to be able to fill in the blanks in a way that works for both of us.
The story on NPR is about a program in Seattle called TimeSlips. “The idea is to show photos to people with memory loss, and get them to imagine what’s going on — not to try to remember anything, but to make up a story,” according to NPR. Apparently, it works much better to show a person with dementia a photo that is NOT of a loved one, but of a stranger engaging in a recognizable activity, and then allow the person to create a story about what is going on in the picture.
“Storytelling is one of the most ancient forms of communication — it’s how we learn about the world. It turns out that for people with dementia, storytelling can be therapeutic. It gives people who don’t communicate well a chance to communicate.” The genius is that this is low-stress. The person with dementia is not called upon to remember something, which is precisely what they might fail at doing. It replaces “the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine.”
Our grandson loves for us to tell him stories of when we were young; one of the things he always asks is “Is this a real story?” He means, did this really happen? The stories that my dad and I will tell each other as a result of using photos as props may not be factual in that sense, but I think they will, nonetheless, be true. It’s just another way of saying that telling stories is what saves us.