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Storytelling for Hope

"Without air, our cells die. Without a story, our selves die."

Neil Postman

We live according to the stories we tell ourselves. Part of what it means to be a human being is to be a storyteller. We don't have a choice. That's just the way our brain works. We need to make sense of the huge, multifaceted world "out there." We do that by taking in information through our senses and weaving that information into stories in our minds about what's "out there," as well as who we are relative to what's "out there." As researchers have worked on building artificial intelligence in computers, they've found that human behavior and thinking often boil down to the stories each of us make, store, and share. Story is the basic fabric for intelligence because it determines how we think and behave. Our brains receive thousands of bits of information daily, sometimes hourly. Most of the information is irretrievable just minutes later, while some information sticks around in our memory. Why? Usually because the information is attached to a story. Stories give life to information and make experiences in memory memorable to ourselves and to others.

Researchers feel that it's part of our biological makeup not just to remember and learn through stories, but to continually create our own stories. It's through the stories we create that we find meaning and hope. Meaning and hope don't exist outside ourselves. We create them through the stories we create. We are, in many ways, essentially hopeful creatures, especially at the start of our lives. We gravitate in the direction of hope. The fact that most of us get up every morning attests to that. Why get up if we don't have at least some measure of hope? But if our stories do not feed that hope, we struggle. Some researchers have suggested that much contemporary unhappiness is due to the fact that people in modern, high-tech societies don't get strong myths and stories passed down to them nor do they develop the ability to create their own strong stories. When our own internal narrator "breaks down" or "loses the plot," we may be threatened with a collapse of meaning and purpose which can lead to depression or anxiety. If we're not given ready-made, credible, hopeful stories to live by, it becomes all the more important to nurture the ability to create our own stories.

North America was originally founded on hope. Immigrants came here looking to the endless frontier, believing in a better life, and following the "rags to riches" tales. Destiny didn't have to be determined by class, social status, or family background. But what has happened recently is that hope has become empty. We've come to believe hope has to do more with good feelings than hard work. At the same time, we've become more cynical. The assassinations, Watergate, the Vietnam War, increasing social and economic inequities, degradation of the environment, changes in the family, and now the uncertain danger of terrorism. In thousands of small ways, a sense of hopelessness is being passed from one generation to the next, a drop at a time. It's fueled by a focus on the self, with no connection to anything bigger.

Some people define hopefulness, or optimism, as seeing the glass half full instead of half empty. They emphasize "positive thinking." But research shows the heart of hope doesn't lie in positive phrases, images of victory, or good feelings. The heart of hope is the way you make sense of causes. It lies in how you explain things to yourself, the story you create about the world and your place in it.

Do you have to sacrifice wisdom for hope? Psychologist Martin Seligman has spent his whole life studying optimism. He says that you can think more positively about events you've habitually found upsetting and stressful. But there's a cost. He explains:

What you gain, you also pay for. People sacrifice wisdom for likeability and cheerfulness. Who wants to spend an evening with people who tell you the upside of everything? It makes me very uneasy and arouses a lot of negative emotions in me. When I'm around people like that, I find I just want to get out of there.

There's a trade-off between the virtues of optimism and its costs. If you decide to be "optimistic," you may not get depressed and your immune system may get a boost. But it may also require blissful ignorance and even denial. It may even be that optimism and a deeper level of wisdom are antagonistic.

As with everything else in life, what you really need is balance. The best balance is something Seligman calls "flexible optimism." He describes it as follows:

You can choose to use optimism when you judge that less depression, or more achievement, or better health is the issue... But we must have the courage to endure pessimism when its perspective is valuable. What we want is not blind optimism, but optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism's keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows.

I personally believe you need hope to achieve full wisdom. Without hope, wisdom remains stuck in what is rather than stretches toward what can be. You can be wise and fatalistic just as easily as you can be wise and hopeful. Wisdom with hopefulness moves us forward.

Hope is not a substitute for character or values. It's not a substitute for ambition and a sense of justice. But it is a tool, a powerful one. Hope is a tool to help individuals and societies achieve goals they have set for themselves. The tool in itself does not provide meaning though. It is in the choice of the goals that meaning resides. Choosing the right goals involves wisdom. When there is an opportunity to be pursued wisely and there is hope, things get better. When there is no hope, things do not.

To understand the art of creating hope in stories, for yourself and for your children and grandchildren, you have to understand the fundamental nature of human communication. Communication is the process of creating meaning. "Messages" may be generated from the outside -- by a teacher or the television, for example -- but meanings are generated from within. The same word may mean two very different things to two different people. Meanings are not in words, they are in people. And meaning is a complicated thing. We are born into and live in a world without "meaning." The world becomes meaningful to us only as we assign significance to our experiences. Wrote T.S. Eliot, "We had the experience but missed the meaning." Children don't really learn anything from experiences. They learn from reflecting on those experiences and communicating about them. That's why for children, communicating with an adult -- a teacher, parent, grandparent -- is so important to shaping the quality of the meaning they develop.

Stories involve communicating not only the truth of factual description of events, people, and places, but also fragments of the storyteller's own truth. When telling stories about their lives, people sometimes forget a lot, exaggerate, become confused, and get things wrong. Yet we are still revealing truths. The stories we tell are expressions of our deepest desires and for this reason they encourage us to become more human, even to ourselves. When we tell stories, we say something that is true to life, but not necessarily true of life. Stories have been described as "lies in search of a higher truth." An ancient piece of Jewish wisdom asks, "What is truer than the truth?" It answers, "The story." Through stories, the world of struggle, conflict, doubt, ingenuity, desire, and frustration is depicted. All stories bypass our rational thought processes. They speak to us directly through fantasy, emotion, heart, and spirit. In stories we both lose and find ourselves. At some deep place within them, we both discover and create who we are. There are three layers to most stories: the external story of facts, plot, and theme; the internal story constructed to protect the ego; and the core story that explains why the storyteller found it necessary to invent the other two stories. The core story is related to the hope we have and the degree to which we are willing to learn from our own stories.

All human beings construct stories to make their world coherent. But not all stories are alike, not all stories work as well as others, and stories often contradict each other and the reality we experience as we go through our lives. Once upon a time... So begin the stories of our childhood. These are stories that center on heroic combat with forces of evil, romantic fantasies of true love, and riddles and paradoxes that address our baser instincts. They are noble and patriotic, brave and true, alluring and beautiful. They generally end with evil being eradicated, love triumphant, and everyone decent living happily ever after. These stories have a function and are instructive in many ways. But, they do little to prepare us for the heroic task of living our lives through the multitude of difficult choices we have to make. The knight doesn't die or return home missing a leg. The princess doesn't need to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. The villain isn't elected into office.

It is in real stories of real lives, told with a truth that causes us to search ourselves, that we can teach ourselves and our children the lessons we need to learn. We need to tell and listen to our own stories and the stories of others. We all have stories to tell about our lives, our conflicts, our enemies, our agonies, our pain. This doesn't mean wallowing in stories of self-pity or victimization. We live our lives as stories, a lifelong narrative. The question is: are you the hero, villain, victim, spectator, teacher, student in your story? In many ways, it's up to you. The hidden fulcrum in every story is the choices you made. Every choice has consequences for ourselves and for the feelings, thoughts, and energies that shape who we are. Every story we tell is a mirror reflecting our choices and revealing our deeper possibilities. We can learn a lot, if we face our stories directly and openly, with as much honesty and empathy as we can muster.

A story of hope is one in which we make use of our power to create a hopeful ending. This doesn't mean denying "reality." We can't really deny reality anyway because we know, in fact, that our stories can have little to do with objective reality. Further, there are certain realities like social inequity that we should not deny because that means we'll never change them. What a story of hope involves is saying, "Yes it was painful, and I learned..." As discussed earlier, what a story of hope really involves is flexible optimism. Life inflicts the same setbacks and challenges on all of us, but the more hopeful person tends to bounce back. Learned hopefulness works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world, but through the power of "non-negative" thinking. To create a story of hope, think about how you are creating the story. Ask yourself some fundamental questions -- What's the evidence? What are the alternatives? What are the implications? What's the usefulness? What can I learn? What can I do about it? Not always easy, but it's the difference between getting stuck or unstuck.

Stories only work in hindsight. They allow us to look back and learn from what's happened. We cannot, as I've said, learn during an experience, only after. To paraphrase an insight from Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, we live our lives forward but we understand them backward. Writes Margaret Atwood in her novel Alias Grace:

When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.

Stories help people learn in a variety of ways. Stories carry the truths of personal history, perception, and interpretation that carry emotional and social weight and meaning. Telling stories about our own life is a vital source of meaning and coherence. They can consolidate a sense of competence and identity. Stories give concrete life to philosophies and value systems against which we can measure ourselves. Stories embody tales of learning that can inspire and inform those who come after us. Family stories and fantasies enable children and adults alike to put experimental flesh on the bones of their own aspirations, and see and feel what alternative futures may be like. So, through stories we can reach back into our common history and our individual experience for knowledge about truth and direction for the future. We also need stories to help us find hope -- for others and for ourselves, particularly as we get older and have more "years lived" to our credit and more years to try to make sense of.

As we get older, telling stories takes on a more urgent dimension. When we see a great movie or read a good book, we often want to see or read it again. Older people also want to "read over" or "see" parts of their lives again. In looking back, we can identify turning points or dynamic events. We can clarify and organize our thinking about life, make sense of events, and enrich the meaning of our life story. We can try to find meaning in losses and failures, accept mistakes and weaknesses, and actually mature by doing so. In many ways, nostalgia is a natural, healing process.

Aristotle suggested that in youth we look outward. We are naturally full of hope and optimism about the future. Anything is possible, and we have the time to explore all the options. Who knows what we'll find? In old age, wearied by losses and disappointments, we turn inward to our memories of real or imagined better times. If you look at the life cycle from birth to old age, you see normal life stages of growth and development. The first years of life have their own tasks and growth points, as do adolescence and middle age. As we approach old age, we are still growing, but hope does not come so easily. We must find hope through wisdom -- hope for ourselves to reconcile with the life we have lived and find some degree of contentment, and hope to pass on to those who come after us. Where in adolescence we ask, "Who am I?" and "Where am I going?", in old age we ask "Who was I?" and "Who have I become?" Older people who spend time in reflection and review manifest a deep personal integration and ever-increasing wisdom, a knowledge of the interconnectedness of things.

So, if we make meaning and find hope as young adults by fashioning dreams, as older adults we make it by shaping memories. We see how the story of our life has turned out -- then change what we can for the future and accept the rest. This process of "looking back" is formally called "life review."

There's an interesting pattern to remembering. Researchers have discovered that if we're not prodded, we tend to reminisce about the recent past, the last ten or twenty years. But, if we are prodded (e.g. by a grandchild asking about "when we were young" or "the old days"), the majority of memories cluster around the ages of 15 to 25, and more than half of an older adult's vivid memories occur before the age of 30. Researchers have theorized that adults find the events during this period particularly memorable because they center on self-definition and identity formation. During this time period, most people establish organizing themes that provide a framework for interpreting later life experiences. We refer back to this time period as we try to evaluate "how well we've done."

We are all searching for the self, no matter how old we are. Some thinkers have actually identified four selves: self-concept (what you think you are like); the ideal self (what you think you should be like; the evaluative self (what you think you should not be like); and self-esteem (how you feel about the fit between the first two). The self is very much a process, and our contentment with ourself is largely dependent on re-imagining the past in order to adapt to the present and prepare for the future. It's by thinking back over our past that we extend our existence into the past; and certainly by thinking into the future, as in the case of doing life planning, that we extend ourselves beyond the present into the future. With increasing age, it seems that the evaluation of our present self is more and more closely linked to the past than the future.

Is it possible to transform the past, to discover new meanings in prior events? Are there times when it is better to forget, and other times when it is crucial to remember? We are not the same people now that we were when an event took place ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. Because we are different, we can find different meaning in an event -- meaning that is helpful to us, and to those that follow us. In the later years of life, people can come to terms with events and feelings they may not have had time to reflect on and think through when they occurred. Further, memory isn't a private stash of fixed truths. Instead, it's more like a treasure chest into which you can dip to polish and repolish the gems you find. Each time you may notice something more. Our memories are more a process of becoming rather than a state of being. We are continuously deciding, evaluating, assessing, recalling, repressing, creating, and altering the stimuli of daily life. You can reconstruct the past in light of the present to allow yourself to take control over or take responsibility for events that have occurred. You can reshape your story so that you see it as meaningful, progressive, and hopeful. Reversing time can be a way to take control over events and behaviors. In the process of telling a story, you often come to see it differently. You get a different perspective on it -- the perspective of time and experience, which can allow you to learn more from it. It's placed in a bigger context, and connections can be made to other events in your life. This can be very important to older adults trying to live their remaining years fully and also end their years with some sense of personal peace with their life as they have lived it.

Life is inevitably full of personal failures. We rarely get everything we aspired to in our youth. Frustration, defeat, and rejection are daily experiences. In an individualistic culture such as ours, which places little importance on anything beyond the self, a person gets little comfort from society when personal loss occurs. More "primitive" societies go out of their way to nurture the individual when loss occurs, and this prevents helplessness from becoming hopelessness. This is one of the most important gifts we can give older adults. The opportunity to reminisce -- and have someone listen -- can help older people unlock what may be long forgotten resources within themselves. Remembering a time when they felt strong and capable, when they overcame problems, made difficult choices, or dealt with losses, may fill them with a sense of power and capability. Research has shown that older people who reminisce are less withdrawn and apathetic than those who don't reminisce. Reminiscing promotes mental and emotional well-being and combats isolation, loneliness, and depression. The process of reviewing memories helps validate who older people are and builds their sense of identity. At a time in their lives when older adults may feel most vulnerable, isolated, or lonely, reminiscing helps restore confidence and self-esteem, and acknowledges their contributions to life.

Particularly for older adults, storytelling for hope (and wisdom) does involve looking backward. But it must also involve looking forward. Even if the years left to live are fewer than the years already lived, they are still an opportunity to do, enjoy, and achieve. Older adults need a balance of recalling old stories with hearing new stories. They need to interact with the young to keep a life force going. They need to take in the stories of the young.

Mutual storytelling offers a number of benefits for connecting young and old:

  • It creates a sense of continuity, linking the past with the present and the future.

  • It preserves family history and cultural heritage.

  • It's a way to pass on and keep alive family stories and traditions.

  • It enables younger people to find out interesting things about their family members as well as the broader historical past.

  • It builds self-esteem in those doing the telling and those doing the listening.

  • It combats the isolation and sense of loss that may come with growing older, and the invalidation that can come with being "too young."

  • It gives older people an opportunity to reflect on and assess life achievements as well as disappointments, and younger people a chance to construct life plans.

  • It helps older people resolve conflicts and fears, and gives younger people a model for facing their own life challenges.

  • It promotes intergenerational interaction and understanding.

Children need stories to connect them to others, to the bigger world, and to themselves. Storytelling has the potential to carry listeners and storytellers alike to a new place in our relationships with one another and with ourselves. The stories we're told as children also determine our interpretation of reality. The messages lay a foundation for our perception of whether or not we can find routes to our goals and have the energy to pursue them. These perceptions influence the goals we choose and whether or not we're willing to go after them. So older storytellers have a big responsibility: the family wisdom they pass down sets into motion actions and beliefs that affect how children respond to the life challenges that face them.

The two sources most responsible for giving children the belief that they can make a significant contribution to life are: 1) stories told by parents, grandparents, teachers; and 2) literature (stories read to children by parents, grandparents, and teachers). In other words, life experience and stories about life experience. Stories about real life experience are most important, as discussed earlier. After these stories, literature is most important -- and more important than television, movies, and art because it brings us closest to the human heart and deepest into the human mind.

Children in all societies are told stories from their earliest days; through them they learn both the nature and function of storytelling, and the family and cultural values and patterns which stories enact. The stories children are told embody the guiding myths and values of their particular culture, and offer powerful examples of how these values can be threatened: how you can go astray; how people learn and grow through their mistakes and misfortunes; and how order is restored.

We have to be aware of the perspective of the stories we tell and the message we are sending children. We want more for our children than healthy bodies. We want our children to have lives filled with connection and character. But there is often a lot of pessimism -- dwelling on the most catastrophic cause of any setback and getting stuck.

We've put a lot of emphasis recently on self-esteem. But it's not all about feeling good. It's also about doing good. The premium we put on feeling good is peculiarly modern. Aristotle had a timeless view: happiness is not an emotion that can be separated from what we do. What's more important is teaching children how to turn pessimism into hope, and how to turn helplessness into mastery. In a quick-fix society, this is no easy task. We want it to be easy -- just a kind word here or there -- but it's not.

One of the most important actions you can take toward helping your child or grandchild develop higher hope is to develop your own practical, hardworking hope. All individuals hold in their minds a set of personal messages about their prospects for achieving their goals. These statements become most obvious when people are faced with problems, or when they undertake difficult projects. Examples of "high hope" statements include: Yes, I can; I don't give up easily; Problems make me try even harder; I'm very determined; I go after what I want; I'm excited about my future; I finish what I start; I'm going someplace in my life; I'm not easily defeated; I can find ways to get what I want; There are many solutions to any one problem; I know how to solve problems; I don't let mistakes or setbacks stop me; I'm good at planning; I break big goals into small steps.

Children have to learn how to create stories too. The ability of children to follow the basic sequence of events in a story develops very early. But it takes longer for them to learn to remember and re-create the underlying plot structures and to move from simply recounting events to giving accounts in terms of the feelings and intentions of the characters. Parents, grandparents, and teachers have to encourage children to tell stories. An older adult can often be a welcome listener. Parents who regularly ask their children to "tell me about your day" and who express genuine interest in hearing a child's elaborate accounts are also important. You are helping a child's social and emotional development. It helps children create who they are. Children learn that personal experiences and their feelings about them matter, and that telling memories is a valued part of relationship building. Through family stories, parents and grandparents can also help construct the form by which children's memories are reported. One way children learn to tell about family events is by going through family photos. Parents and grandparents can encourage children to give descriptions and narratives and then gently correct, supplement, or affirm their accounts. In effect, through talk and questioning, parents and grandparents are tutoring children in "what this event means" and "how we talk about family history."

We pass our stories, hopefully stories of hope, to succeeding generations. We do it for ourselves and for them. We also help to create the world. Novelist John Edgar Wideman writes:

People began speaking, one by one, telling the story of a life -- everything seen, heard, and felt by each soul... The Earth changed. It had grown into the shape of the stories they'd told -- a shape as wondrous and new and real as the words they'd spoken. But it was also a world unfinished, because not all the stories had been told.

Death may bring an end to a life, but not to the life story, which continues on in other people and in the world.

Useful books for adults (some of which you can share with children) related to family storytelling, reminiscing, and making meaning out of your own life stories: The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging edited by Wayne Booth; Telling Your Own Stories by Donald Davis; The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours by Marian Wright Edelman; Wisdom Tales from Around the World by Heather Forest; To Our Children's Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene and D.G. Fulford; What's Worth Knowing by Wendy Lustbader; The Power of Personal Storytelling: Spinning Tales to Connect with Others by Jack Maguire; A Map to the End of Time: Wayfarings with Friends and Philosophers by Ronald Manheimer; Creating a Family Storytelling Tradition by Robin Moore; Children Learn What They Live: Parenting to Inspire Values by Dorothy Law Nolte; Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman; Reminiscence: Uncovering a Lifetime of Memories by Carmel Sheridan; I Remember When: Activity Ideas to Help People Reminisce by Howard Thorsheim and Bruce Roberts; Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World edited by Jane Yolen.

Some storybooks about intergenerational communication and stories: Christmas Tree Memories by Aliki; The Chicken Salad Club by Marsha Diane Arnold; The Wednesday Surprise by Eve Bunting; Dia's Story Cloth by Dia Cha; The Lucky Stone by Lucille Clifton; Granddaddy's Street Songs by Monalisa Degross; The Old, Old Man and the Very Little Boy by Kristine L. Franklin; Dear Hope... Love Grandma by Hilda Abramson Hurwitz; Watch the Stars Come Out by Riki Levinson; The Talking Cloth by Rhonda Mitchell; Hope by Isabell Monk; A Visit to Oma by Marisabina Russo; When Artie Was Little by Harriet Berg Schwartz; This Is the Bird by George Shannon; Homeplace by Anne Shelby; Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story by Marci Stillerman; Mimi's Tutu by Tynia Thomassie; When I Was Little Like You by Jill Paton Walsh; Keepers by Jeri Hanel Watts; The Language of Doves by Rosemary Wells.

Activities: Fill-in-the-Blanks Life Story; Big Picture Stories; What Would You Change?; Crossroads; Did You Ever...?; Keepsakes to Reminisce By; Circle Story; Conflict Stories; Shadow Stories; The Story Your Handwriting Tells; Holiday Reading Basket.


Fill-in-the-Blanks Life Story

Connections: Families; Seniors Groups/Facilities; Schools (Language Arts, Social Studies, History); Community Groups.

What You Need: Copies of "The Life Story of" sheets (12 pages); duplicates or color photocopies of family photos (crop to fit in space available); scissors; photo-safe adhesive; pen. Optional -- tape recorder or video camera.

Doing It:

This is a straightforward, fill-in-the-blanks approach to interviewing an older adult, and is especially appropriate for the very old. While the sheets can be used at any time of the year, the holidays are a nice time to work on them. Spending time with an older adult, asking about their life, is a way to counteract the loneliness many feel at this time of year. The Grandparents Day Activity Kit offers two other approaches to life interviews -- the detailed "Grandparent Interview" in the Communication & Storytelling section, and the simpler "Generations Scrapbook" activity in the Scrapbooking & Other Photo Fun section.

"The Life Story of" sheets are also appropriate for use with older adults who have Alzheimer's, other forms of dementia, or other functional impairments. The sheets can be completed by families, seniors centers/facilities, or young volunteers from schools or community groups.

"The Life Story of" sheets have been inspired by an assessment form developed by the Center in the Woods and published in Beyond Baskets & Beads: A Manual of Activities for Older Adults with Functional Impairments by Mary Hart et al (I highly recommend this manual for seniors facilities). The Center in the Woods is a progressive, multi-purpose community center for older adults, serving over 3,000 people from 90 communities around California, PA (visit www.cup.edu/citw or call 724-938-3554).

Explains Beyond Baskets & Beads:

Too often we only know people as they are today, failing to recognize that each person is a sum total of the experiences which make up his or her life. We believe that this is where many of the usual assessment tools fall short. Most of them are a checklist format -- easy to complete, but almost impossible to recall or use in any meaningful way. Most of the questions are close-ended, requiring only a brief response. They don't encourage the in-depth kind of conversation that can get at the personal and truly pertinent information.... [With this assessment], instead of a cold list of facts, we have a biography of a fascinating human being.

I've heard comments that older people, especially those with functional impairments, become "like children." Some of their behavior may be childlike, but they are NOT children. They are adults with a personal history. Children simply don't have that kind of personal history. After decades of living, none of us would want our life experiences to be dismissed. Acknowledging a person's personal history is what allows older adults to maintain their respect, dignity and, often, their connection to the world around them and the people they love.

At Center in the Woods, each staff member or volunteer who works with an older person is required to read through that person's life story. In this way, they aren't just an "old man or woman with Alzheimer's" but become "someone's mother or grandmother, a lady who owned her own business or lived in Paris. The frail elderly man regains his status as the president of a company or a skilled surgeon. No longer is this person to be pitied or patronized. Instead, we see a person to be admired and respected, a person who is approaching the latter part of a full and useful lifetime." The center's activities can then be planned with people's interests in mind, and information about individuals is much easier to remember and use during interactions.

"The Life Story of" sheets can be completed by interviewing an older person. Families can complete the sheets as a personal record, or as information they can pass along to a care facility. Or, staff or volunteers in a seniors center, nursing home, or other assisted living facility can do the interview when a resident arrives. If the older person can't answer all the questions on their own, family members can help provide information. This is also an activity that young people in schools or community groups, especially teenagers, can volunteer to do in local seniors centers or care facilities. Many seniors centers/facilities are desperate for volunteers, and this kind of help is a welcome first step to perhaps long-term volunteering. Doing the interview introduces young people to the strengths and diversity of older people, even those who may have functional impairments, and provides a valuable service. For the older people, just going through the exercise of the interview can mean a great deal. People want to talk about their lives, dreams, and personal challenges, but they are rarely asked. When a young person takes the time to listen to an older person, what the young person is really saying is that who the older person is, what they've done, and the things they care about are important.

Some basic tips for doing an interview with an older adult to complete the sheets:

  • An interview is just like talking with someone, but with prepared questions.

  • Ask questions clearly and slowly, giving the person time to answer. Repeat questions if necessary.

  • Listen carefully to what the person says; don't interrupt or correct. Maintain eye contact and show interest by leaning forward and nodding.

  • If someone is talking about an unhappy or painful experience, show that you understand how they feel (e.g. "That's very sad").

  • It's okay for there to be moments of silence or emotion. A person's life is important, and emotion is natural. Accept emotions as part of the process.

  • If the person doesn't want to talk about something, that's okay -- just go to the next question.

  • If the person has a lot to say in response to a particular question, summarize the key ideas to fit in the space available on the sheets.

  • An interview shouldn't last more than an hour. People do best when they're not tired. You can always finish the interview at another time.

  • Don't forget to thank the person you've interviewed. Let them know you value what they've shared.

When "The Life Story of" sheets have been completed, it's a nice idea for a family member to read the story on audio or ideally video, with the camera zooming in on specific photos during appropriate parts of the story (begin and end the video with a current photo of the person). The video brings more life to the story, and can be played if an older adult is feeling depressed, bored, restless, or agitated. The sheets and audio/video also become a long-term family keepsake.

This activity can be combined with the "My Book of Memories" activity in the Scrapbooking & Other Photo Fun section of this kit. There are also books available that allow you to fill in your life story. Some good ones: The Book of Myself: A Do-It-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions by Carl Marshall with David Marshall (a grandfather/grandson team); The Story of a Lifetime: A Keepsake of Personal Memoirs by Stephen Pavuk and Pamela Pavuk; and Who We Are: Questions to Celebrate the Family by Bret Nicholaus and Paul Lowrie.


Big Picture Stories

Connections: Seniors Groups/Facilities; Families.

What You Need: Paper; pen/pencil. Optional -- books about historical world events, Internet.

Doing It:

How do the times we live in make us who we are? "Sociobiography" looks at how the big story of the world relates to the little story of you. It follows in the tradition of sociologist C. Wright Mills, who emphasized the influence of society on the individual. He argued that personal troubles are typically rooted in larger social forces -- that is, in public issues. Why do teenagers start smoking? Often because they've seen their parents do it and/or they have been influenced by media images that show smoking as cool. We all experience the effects of social forces that we can do little to avoid. As we begin to understand how we have been acted upon, we have greater freedom to control how we shape and produce the culture around us as well as ourselves. This socioautobiography activity is a way to help older adults consider how social influences have shaped them. It can be a self-exploration tool, as well as a starting point for intergenerational discussion.

To tie your life to major events, look back at some of the many books available that chronicle the major national/world events of your lifetime. History books that include pictures of the war years, the Depression, and other events are very evocative. Magazines (e.g. past issues of Life) often commemorate major events. You can also surf the web to jog your memory. The website www.ourtimelines.com allows you to enter the current date, your birth date, and some events in your life. A historical timeline will then be generated showing your personal events in the context of other historical events. Another great website is kclibrary.lonestar.edu/decades.html. It has photos and historical information (e.g. fashion & fads, historic events, art, books, music, film & TV) on each of the decades of the twentieth century.

Browse through whatever historical material you have available and see what seems significant to you. When does your memory and awareness of certain events (e.g. stock market crash, World War II, the first man on the moon, racial riots, etc.) kick in? How did you respond? Do events trigger memories of what life was like then? What society was like? What values and principles were important then? Think of inventions you've seen in your lifetime. What was it like before them (e.g. was there really life before TV)?

Now follow the questions below to write out or discuss the relationship between your personal life and public history. Writing will encourage you to think more deeply about each question, allow you to review and think about your answers over time, and can become a permanent keepsake for your children and grandchildren.

As you explore each question, you want to get at the interplay between your views of the world and how events, big or small, might have altered the course of your life. This activity involves more than just writing a chronological account. It's important to convey what these life events meant to you as a person living your life.

1. What two or three national/world events during your lifetime have had major consequences on your views, behavior, philosophy, and choices? Start by objectively describing the events in terms of their public occurrence. Include the time period in which each event occurred and any other relevant facts you can remember. Pretend you're a newspaper reporter. Answer "who, what, where, when, and how."

2. What do you remember about how each event affected your personal life? Did anything change in terms of your actions or behavior? What about what you thought?

3. How do you remember feeling, at the time, about each event? How do you feel about each now, in hindsight?

4. How did the event affect people in your family? In turn, how did that affect you?

5. What are some of the special features of the cultural time of each event that shaped your thinking and behavior? How did the cultural time shape and mold your values, beliefs, and view of the world?

6. How do you think the world would have been different had each event not occurred? How would you be different?

7. What have you learned from each event and its impact on your life?

8. What would you like your children and grandchildren to know about the event and how it affected you?

This activity can be combined with "The Day Everything Changed" activity in the Scrapbooking & Other Photo Fun section of this kit.


What Would You Change?

Connections: Seniors Groups/Facilities; Families.

What You Need: Copies of "Life Revisions" sheet; pen/pencil.

Doing It:

By filling in the "Life Revisions" sheet, older adults can evaluate for themselves what things they might like to have changed in their lives and why. This sheet can also be a tool for intergenerational discussion, and a way to pass down life lessons without being heavy-handed.

No one can put all the time they want into every area of their life -- family and friends, work, education, leisure, health, community. We all have to make choices in our lives. We put more time into some areas than others. And most of us have regrets. We wonder, "What if I had...?" It's how we come to terms with the choices we've made and prioritize our values that matters in the end.

For each item on the sheet, circle the most appropriate number. Once you've gone through all the items, see how many "0s" you have (same) versus "-2s" (much less) versus "+2s" (much more). In general, how content are you with the life choices you've made? If there are many items for which you circled "much more", where would you have gotten that extra time? Why did you make the choices you did? What areas of your life do you feel most strongly about? Why? Have you lived your life according to your values? What do the choices you've made in your life say about your personal values?

What advice would you give your children or grandchildren? Why?



Connections: Seniors Groups/Facilities; Families.

What You Need: Copies of "Life Layers" sheet; different colors of fine-tipped pens.

Doing It:

This activity can be done on its own, but is also an effective complement to the "Life Layers" activity in the Then & Now section of the Grandparents Day Activity Kit. This activity can be used for self-review, and for intergenerational discussion -- as a way to help young people understand the kinds of life choices they may face and help them develop the ability to make life choices.

The lines on the "Life Layers" sheet represent a person's life, with the different decades marked off. The arrows indicate the flow of a person's life through the layers. The sheet helps a person map their life and see how the layers of their life experiences have brought them to where they are today.

For this activity, start by writing in your name, your birth date, and the present date. Then think about the turning points of your life -- times when you made a left-hand turn, right-hand turn, or even a U-turn. A turning point is an event, decision, or choice that took you in a particular direction. It might be a college degree, job choice, marriage, house purchase, promotion, loss of job, divorce, serious illness, or death of a family member. For example, you might have had two job offers -- one in your hometown and one overseas -- and you chose one over the other. Your life then took a certain direction based on that choice. A turning point can be positive, negative, neither, or both.

Choose the three most significant turning points in your life. These should be turning points when you chose between two distinct alternatives (or when you feel the choice was made for you). Why are you choosing these three turning points rather than any others? Do your choices themselves tell you anything about how you view your life (e.g. with hope or pessimistically)?

Select a different pen color for each turning point. Now write down each turning point, in the pen color you've selected for it. Write below the life layers lines and put each turning point at the specific time of your life it occurred (e.g. 18 years old, 25 years old, 38 years old)

For each significant turning point, what happened in your life because of the choice you made? For example, marrying a specific person might have led to three specific children (write in their names and birth dates) and a divorce (write it in too). For each chain of events following from a turning point, use the same pen color that you used for the turning point itself, and write below the line. When you're done, you should have three separate chains of related events, each in a different color, and each one starting with a significant turning point.

For each of your three significant turning points, think about how you ended up making the decision you did. What factors were involved in the decision? What other people were in your life at the time, and what influence did each of them have? What was the main or "final" reason for your choice? How did you feel about the decision at the time? What thoughts and feelings have you had about the decision since you made it?

If you had the freedom to completely change the choices you made at those three significant turning points, would you change any of your choices? Why or why not?

For one, two, or all three of the significant turning points, and in the same pen color as the given turning point(s), write out the alternative choice you might have made. If you're happy with all your choices, choose one turning point just for fun and follow it through. Write above the line in the same pen color as the turning point the alternative choice is related to. Staying above the line and in the appropriate pen color, write out the new chain of events that might have occurred. How would the alternative choice have affected your life?

Does looking at choices you've made in the past affect how you might make important decisions in your life now? How?

Based on your turning points, what advice would you give your children and grandchildren? Why?

A useful and detailed life review tool is the Self-Discovery Tapestry Kit by Life Course Publishing (www.lifecoursepublishing.com or (310) 540-6037). It's particularly appropriate for activity directors working with older adults. It's a colorful, interactive form that helps in review, exploration, and analysis.


Did You Ever...?

Connections: Families; Seniors Groups/Facilities; Schools (Language Arts, Social Studies); Community Groups.

What You Need: No materials.

Doing It:

Saying "tell me about your life" is usually a little too broad to evoke memories. You have to zero in on a specific topic. "Did you ever...?" is an intergenerational game young and old can play to evoke memories. Both children and adults will have memories on most of these topics and can compare memories from different times.

Each person in a group tells a true story about one of the topics below. Tell a story in as much detail as you can. Remember the incident like a movie in your head, and explain what you see one step at a time -- what happened, what you thought, and what you felt before, during, and after.

Here are some topic ideas:

Did you ever...
see a lion
go swimming
go on a boat
take a cruise
go to a beach
visit an art gallery
stay on a farm
sleep in a cabin or tent
go to a country fair
go berry or vegetable picking
see a circus
act in a play
see a really scary movie
get a bad grade
win a prize
have a good luck charm
make something you were really proud of
move to a new house
travel overseas
live in a foreign country
stay in a fancy hotel
drive in a convertible
have a pet
bake bread
play an instrument

Variation: If people don't have a specific, real memory on a certain topic, encourage them to make a story up. Tell the story as if it really happened. As you go around to each person in the group, and after they've told their story, the group then has to guess if the story was real or made up. How often can you guess accurately? How clever can people be in making up stories? Is truth sometimes stranger than fiction?


Keepsakes to Reminisce By

Connections: Seniors Groups/Facilities; Schools (History, Social Studies); Families.

What You Need: Reminiscence box (see ideas below). Note: Local museums sometimes have "handling boxes" filled with old items that they may be willing to lend out for short periods of time.

Doing It:

Vivid memories are often evoked by keepsakes and photographs. Older adults can get involved in scrapbooking as a way to use photographs to evoke memories for personal life review, and at the same time preserve photos for future generations (see the "Senior Scrapping" activity in the Scrapbooking & Other Photo Fun section of this kit). Going through keepsakes or photographs of keepsakes (see the "Preserving Your Family Keepsakes" activity in the Scrapbooking & Other Photo Fun section of this kit) is also a catalyst for memories and storytelling.

Helping older adults identify cherished objects is useful in itself. Research has shown that older people who could not identify a most cherished object or keepsake tend to have higher levels of depression and lower levels of life satisfaction. Being able to identify a cherished keepsake is being able to connect with the past in a meaningful way.

There are several ways you can make use of keepsakes. Most people have at least one or two special objects that tend to evoke reminiscing. Even if an older person tells a story about these objects again and again, it's a way to connect with the past and reinforce life themes. For grandparents and grandchildren, just going through a drawer or closet full of "old junk" can be an adventure. Items that can carry a lot of personal meaning and evoke specific memories include: programs and ticket stubs from plays or sporting events; programs from grade school recitals; school report cards; dog tags and foreign money from a war; high school yearbooks; old driver's licenses; titles of home ownership; sheet music; poems; postcards; cards and letters; magazine clippings; memorials or funeral cards from relatives; jewelry.

For more general reminiscing, you can create a reminiscence box containing objects that will bring back memories of days gone by. These types of boxes are ideal for intergenerational programs linking schools and seniors facilities. Sometimes, older adults are hesitant about their ability to tell a story. But, in the more casual situation of simply going through boxes of old objects, they find it easier and more natural to talk about the objects and tell stories about the "olden days." The reminiscence boxes encourage older adults to reminisce, and at the same time give children a hands-on learning opportunity. Children can see and touch objects, and try to "guess" what they were used for.

Fill each reminiscence box with objects from the past related to a specific theme. Some examples:

  • The Kitchen: pastry cutter, meat grinder, candle, coal, mousetrap, flypaper, glass milk bottle, bottle caps/opener.

  • School: old textbooks, slate with chalk, pen and inkwell, ruler, geometry set, wooden pencil box, slide rule.

  • Play: skipping rope, spinning top, marbles, yo-yo, baseball cards, peashooter, ice skates.

  • Fashion: powder compact, purses, cuff links, razor strap, lace handkerchief, stockings, darning box, gloves, buttonhook.

Make up your reminiscence boxes with whatever you have available. Ask friends and family for contributions. Have boxes reflect local customs and cultural backgrounds. Once assembled, boxes can be used with different groups of children.


Circle Story

Connections: Schools (Language Arts); Seniors Groups/Facilities; Families; Community Groups.

What You Need: No materials. Optional -- paper; pen/pencil.

Doing It:

Children need to learn how to listen to stories and they need to learn how to tell them. A circle story can be an intergenerational storytelling activity (e.g. a group of students with a group of older adults, or several members of a family), or an activity that involves just children. The idea can also be used with a group of older adults as a storytelling practice activity.

Everyone sits in a circle. Start by deciding on a topic, ideally something related to a basic life lesson or challenge. Suit the topic to the age of children participating. For example, for elementary-age children, the topic could be the first day of high school (an event they're looking forward to). For teenagers, it could be buying your first car or going for your first job interview. Once you've chosen the topic, develop a main character (e.g. male/female, age, other broad characteristics).

The leader or an adult can start the story off by setting the stage in approximately three sentences. Then go around the circle, one person at a time. Each person develops the story a bit more, adding about three sentences each. Listening is important in the circle story because people have to understand what has come before and contribute something that makes sense and keeps the story moving along. Make sure the story is moving forward -- that there's action and interest. And be creative!

The group can decide when it's time to wrap up the story, or you can set a time limit ahead of time.

Did people find the circle story difficult? Why or why not? How did each person end their part to hand it off to the next person? Did the whole story make sense? If you did the circle story as an intergenerational activity, how did the contributions of the older and younger people come together? Were there differences in the way they told the story or the content they added?

Variation: Break people into groups of perhaps four (e.g. two children and two adults). Each group has five minutes to write a paragraph with a few sentences to start a story. The sentences should set the scene, introduce two main characters, and state the problem. After five minutes, each group passes along its story to the group on one side of them, and gets a new story from the group on the other side of them. Each group then has five minutes to add another paragraph, consisting of a few more sentences, to the story they've received. When the five minutes are up, stories are passed along again. Keep going as long as you like or until all groups have worked on each story at least once. Let everyone know when the final writing session is so that each group can wrap up the story they have. After the last writing session, read all the stories out loud. How did they turn out? What was most interesting about writing the stories? Most difficult? Why?


Conflict Stories

Connections: Schools (Language Arts, Health); Families; Community Groups.

What You Need: No materials.

Doing It:

Conflict stories can be a playful way for adults to help children discover different ways of handling conflict and other difficult life situations. Children can distance themselves from a problem and work through alternative solutions.

When children are in the midst of a conflict, calm emotions and get everyone to sit down. Announce that you're going to tell them a story. Tell a story about the specific conflict. It should be in the form of a fable, and begin with the words, "Once upon a time..." Use neutral names and a third person voice. Set up the problem.

At the point of conflict, stop and ask the group for suggestions on how to resolve it. Probe for suggestions that are specific and constructive. Then choose one suggestion and integrate it into the story. End with, "... and they all lived happily ever after."

Variation: An adult can tell a story in fable-form about a conflict they personally have experienced and how it was resolved. This can be a way of sharing a life lesson in a way that isn't heavy-handed.

The information and activities in the Peace Building section of this kit complement this activity.


Shadow Stories

Connections: Families; Seniors Groups/Facilities; Schools (Science, Language Arts); Community Groups.

What You Need: Copies of "Shadows" and "Shadow Creatures" sheets, with the materials listed.

Doing It:

Shadow pictures were really the first motion pictures. Children have enjoyed them ever since the first grandmother discovered that a shadow of her hand on the wall looked like a bird's head or a dog. The great advantage of shadows as a kind of "movie" is that all you need is a bright light and a flat, light-colored surface. The stronger the light and the whiter the flat surface, the clearer the shadow picture will be. Darken the room, uncover a light bulb, throw a white sheet over a door, and away you go.

Shadow stories are a fun family holiday activity. Everyone can participate in trying different shadows and making up stories. Shadow creatures can also be integrated into familiar family stories to add some lightheartedness. For example, "And then Uncle Joe had to wrestle with a giraffe to get out to his garden. Who do you think won -- the giraffe or Uncle Joe?" or "When Grandma was looking for her lost ring, she put her hand in her coat pocket and pulled out a rabbit! Well, you can just imagine how surprised she was. So she decided to make rabbit stew for dinner. But anyway, back to looking for that ring..." Shadow creatures can pop up as recurring comic characters throughout a familiar family story.

Shadow stories are also a nice addition to intergenerational programs. One seniors facility developed a short shadow play. Each older adult was given a shadow animal role. They developed a storyline with the creatures and practiced. Then, they presented the shadow play to their young visitors and taught them how to make the shadow animals -- to the great delight of all involved.

The "Shadows" and "Shadow Creatures" sheets will help get you started. They're from a book I've written called Science Is.... It's huge -- filled with over 450 fun, easy-to-do activities, projects, experiments, games, puzzles, and stories. I find that science -- which is really all about exploring the wonders of the world around us -- is one of the best ways to bring young and old together. You're never too young or too old to enjoy that "Hey, wow!" feeling of discovery. For more information on the book (and the special discounts available for schools and community groups), visit www.bigsciencebook.com or contact The Communication Project (1-800-772-7765 or admin@legacyproject.org).


The Story Your Handwriting Tells

Connections: Families; Seniors Groups/Facilities; Schools (Science); Community Groups.

What You Need: Copies of "Reading Handwriting" sheets; white, unlined paper; pen.

Doing It:

Your handwriting has a story to tell about you. This is a fun intergenerational activity (with old and young comparing handwriting), and an activity children or adults can do on their own. Many seniors groups/facilities find that handwriting analysis activities are very well-received.

The "Reading Handwriting" sheets are from the book Science Is... -- a great source of intergenerational activities (see book description in the activity above).


Holiday Reading Basket

Connections: Families. Schools (Language Arts) and Seniors Groups/Facilities can also adapt and integrate this idea into an intergenerational program.

What You Need: Copies of "Building a Reading Tradition in Your Family" and "Some Intergenerational Storybook Suggestions" sheets (you can make a double-sided copy and circulate the information); large wicker basket (available at discount stores); wrapping paper; scissors; tape; books!

Doing It:

The best gift you can give this holiday? The most lasting, most hopeful intergenerational gift? That's easy -- the gift of reading. The most important thing you can do with the young is read to them. If reading to children were more prevalent, research shows children would face far fewer academic and social problems. They would also be better equipped to handle those that did come up. Children who are read stories are better learners and have stronger communication skills (i.e. listening, talking, writing, reading). Everything flows from knowing how to read. Children can't understand anything else unless they know how to read. The more they read, the more they know, and the more their thought processes develop. They stay in school longer because they meet with more academic success and fulfillment. And then they are better able to build a life for themselves and make a contribution to the world.

There are only forty-four sounds in the English language. And did you know that all forty-four sounds -- every one of them -- can be found in Good Night Moon, Make Way for Ducklings, and Charlotte's Web? That's right, three simple books. You don't need any special training, books, or background to read to children and grandchildren -- and teach them how to build their vocabulary, understand the world, and create themselves. Could there be anything more powerful?

Books are also a connection across time and generations. It is through stories that we can gain the experience of past generations. There is a saying from Mongolia, "There are no people a thousand years old, but there are words a thousand years old." Reading opens up worlds a child might not otherwise discover. It is a chance for a parent, grandparent, or grandfriend to influence a child in a subtle, positive way. It's a way to help create a good image of the world and build hope. It's a way to share ideas and memories. It's a way to have fun and adventures together. Each time you read aloud to a child, you offer yourself as a role model. And each time you talk about what you've read, you build your relationship. So you get two benefits from one act. Double your pleasure, double your effectiveness.

This holiday, turn off the TV. Turn off the computer. Read a book instead. In fact, read several. What better way to bring young and old together? Cuddling up and reading stories aloud together over the holidays gives children "something to remember you by." There was a man -- a big, burly fellow -- who came to one of my workshops. He told me he loved his family getting together over the holidays because his father would read everyone -- adults and children -- stories. The children loved listening to their grandfather, but the man also admitted he loved listening to the stories. He said he loved the sound of his father's voice. Everything else left his mind when his father was reading -- except for the loving sound of his father's voice.

I particularly love picture books for intergenerational reading. They are an art form appropriate for all ages. They can be moving, amusing, thrilling, enchanting. They take a message and put it in a compact, powerful package. Whether you're sharing with young children, teenagers, or older adults, consider exploring some of the great picture books available.

The "Building a Reading Tradition in Your Family" and "Some Intergenerational Storybook Suggestions" sheets give you the basics and some starter intergenerational story suggestions. Feel free to copy the sheets (you can make a double-sided copy) and circulate the information to friends, family, and colleagues. Help spread the word! For other book ideas, take a look at the complete storybook listing at the end of this kit, think about your family favorites, and dig up stories you enjoyed as a child. I'd also highly recommend The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It's filled with great information, insights, tips, and book suggestions. It's a classic!

The Holiday Reading Basket is a way to start a special reading tradition in your family and bring the generations closer over the holidays. Decide that from the beginning of December to the end of the month, or from the middle of the month to the end of the month, you'll dip into the basket every day.

Start by collecting a bunch of books. Gather some with holiday themes, some from the list I've provided, some family favorites, some books from your youth. They don't all have to be new; some can be favorites your children enjoy reading now. You can also borrow books from the library. Wrap up each book in pretty wrapping paper. Then put all the books into a big wicker basket and place the basket in a spot of honor in your living room (this gives it an air of importance, just like a Christmas tree).

Each evening, children can choose one wrapped book. Half the fun is unwrapping the book (even if it's a familiar one). Then everyone cuddles up and reads it aloud together. On hectic days, the Holiday Reading Basket is a way to slow things down and make sure the family spends some time together. The expectation is set and everyone looks forward to it. The basket is also useful for those days when you might be looking for something easy to fill a little quiet time -- like the lull on Christmas day, after the presents have been unwrapped and the food has been ingested. And make sure there are enough books in the basket left for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. When the holidays are over, put the Holiday Reading Basket away in a safe place until next year (but keep reading year-round, of course!).

The Holiday Reading Basket is something your children will look forward to each year, even as they get older. The gift of reading truly is the best gift of all.

From Holiday Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2003

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