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Elders need to tell their life stories to preserve their legacies

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Sometimes it seems as though an older person - and I'm not just talking about people with memory impairment, but most older folks - want to tell the same stories over and over. As caregivers, we can wonder if there is undiagnosed memory impairment with our elders. If they have been diagnosed with memory impairment, we often just sigh and mentally plug our ears while they ramble. Consider this: Elders often are re-telling their life events to help themselves gain perspective on their lives and figure out what kind of legacy they will leave behind. Listen if you can. You may learn something.

One of my most precious memories is a time when my dad, homebound because of recent back surgery, sat in his recliner and told me stories about his very unusual childhood. Mom had gone shopping, so it was just Dad and me.

It wasn't all that much later that Dad had another surgery, this time to correct some fluid buildup in his brain. He had scar tissue from a World War II injury and this fluid, if not allowed to drain, could cause dementia. Dad elected to have the surgery. The "poor outcome," medical speak for a disaster to the patient and family, was that Dad was thrown into dementia hell that lasted until his death, ten years later.

Remember Loved Ones' Stories While Caring For Them During Decline

As many of you who are caring for elders with dementia know, those were tough years for all of us. One way I hung onto my sanity during those years was remembering that afternoon where I sat and listened to Dad tell me stories of his youth.

Since Dad was a quiet man, this was a unique experience. However, many of you are thinking - don't deny it because I just know you are thinking, "Yes, but he only spent the afternoon telling those stories. He didn't repeat them ad nauseam." True. Yet I've had a great deal of experience listening to the often told story, just as you have.

My father-in-law, who was known to quip, "You probably don't want any advice but I'll give it to you anyway," was also a big story teller. He retold stories often. There was nothing wrong with his memory. It's just that he had a need to re-tell stories he knew we'd already heard. I was fine with that, though I know some family members weren't. I somehow sensed his need, so I patiently listened. And, frankly, I picked up a new twist each time I heard the stories. I believe he was, subconsciously, trying to figure out his legacy through this repeated telling - trying to figure out what in his life was meaningful.

Stories Help Define Legacy

We who are lucky enough to grow old should celebrate that fact, but in our culture, youth is worshipped. Aging means "losing it." That youth worship makes the aging process, painful in many ways as it often is, even more painful. Rather than revere our elders for the lives they lived, our culture looks at elders as used up and past their prime. We are a throw-away culture.

I'm not implying that every elder is a font of wisdom. A person whose body grew older, but who was unable to grow emotionally and mentally in a way that he acquired wisdom, can be a bore. Even then, many of us could learn a bit from letting our elders tell their stories repeatedly. There may be clues to why this person stopped growing emotionally at a certain age. Figuring out this puzzle could help us evolve into better people and may even shed light on dysfunctional family issues.

The stories your elders relate to you are part of your heritage. Learning about their past can unlock mysteries about yourself. That is important. Of equal importance, however, is understanding that your elder is likely doing what I believe my father-in-law was doing. Your elder is trying to figure out what his life was worth, so to speak.

As a person with several decades under my belt, I'm able to look back on my life in chunks. I can see things with more perspective than I could twenty years ago. I have more understanding when I remember words and phrases my mother used, references my dad used, phrases my grandparents used. My own aging process has helped me relate to their history.

Appreciating Unique Qualities in Our Elders and Ourselves

My paternal grandmother was born in New Hampshire and even though she lived most of her adult life on the northern plains, New Hampshire was still a part of her. Some of her expressions were so ingrained that she never lost her little sayings, such as "Oh, bother" - just like A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh."

Also, I can look at my own children, their personalities, health, and wonderful brains, and see a bit of this and a bit of that from different sides of the family. That's perspective. The ability to appreciate unique human beings who are themselves, but still made up of parts of so many people, is a benefit of reflection and that reflection is often brought about after listening to family stories.

That same perspective makes me easier on myself. I see reasons for choices I made that I could label mistakes, except without them I wouldn't be who I am now. That is important, as my aging process is making me happier with who I am as a person. Some of you may already be experiencing this process as you listen to your elder ramble on. Some of you have yet to grab the significance. Take some time to reflect. Are you just sick of hearing the same story (understandable when it's repeated five times a day), or are you just hearing the surface of the story and not listening to the sub-text?

Challenge Yourself to Really Listen

The next time you are trapped by a repeated story, if time allows, take time to really listen. Give some thought to why your elder is telling this particular story once again. Maybe it's just the dementia talking, but maybe, just maybe, there is something to learn about your elder and what is important to him at this time. Maybe there is something to learn about him, or even about yourself, if you listen with an open heart and an attentive mind. If nothing else, you may succeed in giving the gift of attention to your elder. That may be enough to curtail the retelling of that particular story for at least a day or two.