As our elders advance in age, oftentimes they repeat stories over and over again. As patience wanes, we chalk the repetition up to memory issues. But here's something to think about: there may be another reason for their repetitive stories.
As years go by, most of us gain–or attempt to gain–perspective. By retelling personal stories, elders are often, consciously or subconsciously, trying to reframe their life from the perspective of time. If we give them the gift of attentive listening, we may find their stories more interesting and even learn something new about them. Since an elder’s history is part of our own, we might learn something new about ourselves, too. This mutually beneficial activity is the perfect gift for Dads this Father’s Day.
Listen Early On
Before my father developed dementia, he had other health problems that required someone to attend to his needs while he healed. At that time, my mother was able to provide most of his care, but I'd often sit with him to give her a break. Those moments with Dad are now some of my most precious memories.
I clearly remember him lying back in his recliner as I sat on the couch asking him questions about his unusual childhood. He told me interesting stories about events that I'd had no idea were a part of his history. His stories were not only fascinating, but they were also revealing tales of his past. I’m grateful that I was able to spend this quality time with him, because listening to his stories helped me understand him better.
Storytelling Goes Mainstream
As baby boomers age, there's been increasing interest in recording their experiences. Their stories of serving in the military, pursuing relationships, beginning careers and raising families during transformative periods in American and global history are precious. I admire the people and organizations that encourage the trend toward preserving personal narratives. Some businesses even offer tools and services to help people document their own family histories.
While a formal “interview” approach can be wonderful, the times I had with my dad and other elders were simply spontaneous moments of sharing. I believe that the mood would have been less candid and laidback had I tried to make it an official storytelling time. Ideally, the younger generations could do both: engage in listening to their elders’ stories and record their voices and images as they speak. More important than the method, however, is simply letting your loved ones know you value hearing about their lives.
I've heard elders say that one of the things they enjoy most about life in assisted living and skilled nursing communities is how many of the aides listen to their anecdotes with genuine interest—the same stories their children and grandchildren may have grown tired of. Keep in mind that one's personal history can become increasingly important as one ages. After all, as life draws to a close, we all want to know that we made a difference. Stories help us add meaning to and make sense of life. To have the rapt attention of a younger person who will listen thoughtfully is comforting for a senior whose sphere of life is slowly shrinking.
When Communication Isn’t Possible
If your father can no longer tell you stories, turning the process around can be just as meaningful. Think back on your life as a family and tell him about how you remember him as a dad. Remark on the fun things you did together and the important lessons he taught you. He will surely get something out of the fact that you are interested in him as a person and making an effort to connect. A one-sided conversation can seem awkward at first, but the extra attention will definitely be appreciated.
Hearing loss and aphasia (the inability to understand or express speech due to conditions like dementia and stroke) can make communicating with a loved one very complex. Fortunately, there are other techniques for showing Dad how much he matters to you. Even if a conversation isn’t possible between the two of you, music can have a profound elevating effect. Try playing some of his favorite artists or songs to recall past times together. Touch is another useful method for interacting with a loved one who has difficulty communicating. Holding Dad’s hand or combing his hair can be tactile ways of showing how much you care.
The Gift of Caring
Listen to your dad tell his stories if he is able. If not, help him out by supplying the words or using other gestures to express your appreciation. However you plan to celebrate, take the initiative to make this Father's Day rewarding for both of you. The gift of caring will most certainly provide you with memories that you will cherish long after he is gone.