Connecting Across the Years: Storytelling in Assisted Living Centers

by Kathy Murphy.

Imagine a small group of older people sitting in a living room. I begin to tell stories. Someone in the audience might fall asleep, or interrupt me, or get up and leave. Or, something magical might happen…

I am a freelance storyteller, working mostly with senior adults in long-term healthcare facilities and assisted-living centers. I left a corporate job at the end of 1996 to see if I could earn my living doing what I have a passion for. I set out with a small collection of stories and love in my heart for these special elders.

These elders have led active, vital lives. They now have impairments that have taken away a great deal of their independence. The staff of the facility in which they reside meets their basic physical needs but… feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression are common. The seniors are “talked at” and “talked to” but seldom “talked with.” Self- esteem plummets as the elders wonder what they have done in their lives that has made a positive difference for anyone. My goal is to offer these elders an opportunity to recapture the threads of meaning, purpose and connection that are woven throughout their lives.

A Different Kind of Storytelling

In the beginning my repertoire was myths, folktales, legends and personal stories. My audiences quickly let me know that they prefer stories of real people. Although stories of famous people are okay some of the time, they usually want to hear stories of just ordinary folks. And most important – these elders need humor and like to laugh.

Quite often I don’t get a chance to finish the story program I prepare on a given day and for this reason, this particular storytelling format will not appeal to every storyteller. But something more important begins to happen… the stories I tell spark the elder’s memories and they want to share personal stories of their own. This suits me just fine. I believe we are all storytellers – some of us already know this and others are just discovering this truth. I find great joy in helping these folks to find their own voice. These story programs give them a place to be heard, a way to share their lives with each other, with the staff in the center and with me.

Storytelling in this environment with senior adults puts me in an arena unlike that of many other storytellers. I have the opportunity to be with the same audience more than once. I do not see myself as a performer, but rather one who shares and facilitates with other participants. I see my primary role as genuinely communicating to these elders how much I like spending time with them. I help them to focus on the things they are still able to do instead of what has been lost to them. When I can effectively, through story, stimulate their minds, provoke memories and help them recapture some of the vitality of their earlier lives, their sharing of their own stories becomes a very natural extension of my telling stories.

Setting the Stage for Stories

I make every effort to create a comfortable, accepting environment for my programs. I work with the staff to find a place that is physically comfortable (room temperature is not too hot or too cold, no drafts, no excessive background noise, not a high-traffic area, etc.). I strive to put the residents at ease and learn each person’s name. (Yes, that takes some doing, but doesn’t each of us feel special when someone calls us by name?) Smiling is essential-I want the seniors to know how much I enjoy spending time with them.

I often open my program with a story about a young man, who, upon arriving home from work in the evening, touches the branches of an evergreen tree in his yard, pretending to hang his troubles there. He says his work problems don’t belong in the house with his wife and children. So he hangs his troubles on the tree when he comes home and picks them up again as he leaves for work the next morning. “But,” he says, “The funny thing is that by morning there seem to be fewer problems than I remember hanging up the night before.” I outstretch my arms and tell my listeners that I will be their ”trouble tree” for the time that Fm with them. The elders will usually enter into the spirit of the story, and as I meander through the audience, they reach out and touch my arms. We should never discount the power of the imagination. I have seen residents visibly relax when they “hang their troubles” on my arms. Audiences request this story at every program. After the event, residents give me hugs and amaze the nurses, who tell me “They don’t even hug their families!” I don’t need to analyze this dynamic and try to qualify and quantify it. Little gestures, the simplest things, can make a huge difference in the way we relate with one another and how that relationship makes us feel about ourselves.

Stories Bring Us Together

Open the Door
I tell a story about a man cleaning out the “junk drawer” in the kitchen. Frank, a 90- year-old resident in an assisted-living center, told us the story reminded him of his childhood. He grew up in a large house on Capitol Hill in Seattle that had a bank of drawers between the butler’s pantry and the dining room. One of the drawers was called the “fish and fancy silk” drawer by his family. Frank said he didn’t know what the name meant, just that the name had been around long before he came along. “That drawer was filled with tacks, rubber bands, scissors, various types of thread and string, and I sure liked to play in it when I was little!” This was the first time Frank had shared anything about his life with the other residents. The Nursing Director told me that when Frank moved into assisted-living, he didn’t participate in activities because he thought no one else would share his interests or be able to converse on his level. Frank didn’t attend the story programs at first, but when he saw how much fun we were having, he decided that he didn’t want to be left out. This man is well educated and intelligent, and he was partly correct; there aren’t other residents who can discuss literature, classical music, and current events with his expertise. But Frank found that they can all share a lot about ordinary things; former pets and hobbies, living through the Depression, serving in and raising families during World War II, etc. And because this man is outgoing and articulate, he now acts as a catalyst to draw stories out of others, particularly the other male residents.

Forge Friendships
I tell a story about a small country church in rural Illinois and how it was a center of activity and support for farm families during the Depression. Winnie and Vera are two 80-something ladies, archrivals living on the same floor of an assisted-living facility, who learned through that story that they had much in common. Their families lived within 15 miles of each other during the 1930s. Each had attended that church at one time and knew many of the same families who lived in the area. About three weeks after I told that story, an aide took me aside to tell me that these two ladies had requested new seating assignments in the dining room. Now Winnie and Vera wanted to sit together.
When I can effectively, through story, stimulate their minds, provoke memories and help them recapture some of the vitality of their earlier lives, their sharing of their own stories becomes a very natural extension of my telling stories.

Build Community
I tell a story of Charles Darrow, who invented the board game Monopoly. He didn’t set out to become a millionaire. The game began as a gift to his wife, made of scraps of cardboard and tiny pieces of wood, as a simple way to keep her spirits up during her Depression-era pregnancy. This story opened floodgates. The residents told stories of competitive Monopoly games among family members and talked of other favorite board games they liked to play. The seniors shared that family members had given away or stored their games, cards and jigsaw puzzles into the attic when the elders moved into assisted-living quarters. I found it sad to hear that these elders no longer played and rather amazing that no one had told family and friends how they missed these activities and wanted to resume them. This is a good example of how even the most independent-spirited, self-confident people often lose their self-esteem and feel victimized by their physical limitations and the need to move into care facilities. With the help of Activities Department Staff and some residents’ family members, we collected board games and jigsaw puzzles and created a lending library. This facility now has a game night once a week in the same space we use for storytelling. One resident hosts a competitive Scrabble game in her room every Thursday evening; I have been invited to sit in on a couple of those games and I’ll tell you – these folks play for blood.

Remember To Laugh
One day I told the story of a married couple who began a special outreach ministry to nursing homes. They filled baskets with humorous material; audio-tapes, video tapes, cartoons, bumper stickers, greeting cards, Koosh balls, Slinkies, and bottles of bubble blowing soap. When I finished the story, I looked at the residents and asked, “So, what do you think? Should we make a Humor Box?”  There were smiles around the room and a resounding “YES.” Thus was born the “Box of Humor and Joy/’ I bought a plastic shoebox, labeled it, and filled it with a few favorite cartoons, jokes, and anecdotes. I asked permission of the Nursing Director to leave the box in the area that we use for storytelling. I brought the box to the next story program and explained that this box was theirs to fill with whatever tickled their funny bones. We would read the contents together each week sometime during our story time. Before long, staff members, the residents’ families and friends, even their doctors, were “feeding” the box. At one retirement facility I am known all over the campus as “the lady with the humor box.” Residents have attended my story programs just so they can share a laugh from the Humor Box.

Recovering Memory
Many of these residents, for a variety of medical reasons, have short-term memory loss. It is embarrassing for them; they recognize the change but are powerless to do anything about it. It is very affirming when the seniors see that some things can still be recalled effortlessly, that their memories haven’t failed them completely. These elders grew up in a generation when schoolchildren were given lots of memorization work. They love hearing poetry or song lyrics from their youth. Some of the elders with memory loss cannot tell me by three o’clock in the afternoon what they had for lunch that day. I am amazed and thrilled to watch these same seniors mouth the words along with me as I recite a familiar poem, a poem they first learned sixty-plus years ago.

Letting Pain Go
I sometimes share a favorite verse about how I can’t take away their aches and pains, nor can I solve their problems or restore their health. But, I tell them, I can spend time with them, share my stories, flowers, friends, my hopes, fears, songs and prayers with them as we travel along in life together. I have some audiences who like the verse so much (they tell me it affirms that they are enjoyable to be around and have value even though they can no longer be active, going and doing) that it has become a tradition that we share every program. Pearl is an 85-year- old woman who had attended my programs for three and a half years. She loved the story times and urged other residents to come and participate. Then Pearl had some orthopedic problems that necessitated a month-long stay in a skilled nursing facility while she received physical therapy. I do story programs at this nursing home also and Pearl participated. Three weeks into her stay, Pearl told me (and this was confirmed by the nursing staff) that she requested less pain medication on the days I did story programs. After this incident, I learned this was true for other patients as well.

Honoring Other’s Stories
I present an entire program of stories about aprons, planting and cultivating vegetable gardens, and quilts. Some of the stories were written by people living during the Depression; others were written by the grandchildren of those people about the legacies left to them. This particular story program was attended by Helen, a soft-spoken 84-year- old woman who had recently moved into this assisted-living facility with her husband, an Alzheimer’s patient. After the program Helen told me how much she had enjoyed the stories and said she had something to give me. She took me down to her apartment, and after rummaging in her bedroom, handed me a lovely old stationery box. It was filled with three small handmade dolls, a calling card from the early 1900s and a small piece of fabric woven in a lovely Nordic pattern -both belonging to the aunt who raised her -and a small piece of cloth Swedish-embroidered by her mother who died when Helen was still an infant. Helen said she could tell by the passion with which I shared the stories that I would appreciate these gifts. Then she told me stories of each of the items and said to feel free to share the articles and her stories with my other audiences. The day I was presented with this treasure box, I was asked to come and visit often so I could hear more of her story. I have enjoyed several visits with this lovely lady, who is grieving the loss of communication with her spouse of 65 years, due to his Alzheimer’s. Helen told me that what family she has left is tired of hearing her stories. “People don’t come to visit often anymore because they are upset by my husband’s failing health.” I feel blessed by this friendship, which came about by traveling “the bridge of story.

Planting Seeds for Story Sharing

Sharing Treasures
I take personal belongings to share: the quilt my mother learned to stitch on, tablecloths from the breakfast nook of my childhood, family photographs (old sepia prints of grandparents I never knew and bright, candid shots of my grandchildren have been especially popular). I often tell stories about the fresh flowers I bring, sometimes an exotic or unusual blossom. In the summertime, when garden flowers are plentiful, I make bouquets I can leave at the facility. It was a sad discovery to learn that many of these residents only have fresh flowers when someone dies and the family f leaves a memorial flower arrangement.

I have found that flowers, like children and pets, are great for evoking memories. One woman shared about her husband’s prize-winning rose bushes; a gentleman in his eighties told us how he learned to graft trees and preserve seed by working for a nursery as a young man; another resident told of her grandfather growing pumpkins for each of his grandchildren, carving each child’s name and birth date
into the rind of the pumpkin as it matured, to show the children how special they were to him.
Sharing my personal treasures seems to give the residents permission to share some of their own belongings. Here are a few examples of objects the residents bring to share:

  • The math book was published in 1919. We read from it such things as 4 gills=l pint and 63 gallons=l hogshead. We read story problems about measuring yard goods and drawing things to scale. This prompted stories about sewing dresses from flour sacks and tales of barn raisings.  Jake told of a chicken coop he and his brother built when they were 11 and 12 years old. “We were so set on doing a good job and so proud we could build a solid chicken coop, we forgot to build a door!” Jake said that story made him and his brother celebrities as the story was told at family gatherings for decades.
  • A bright yellow slicker with a big purple “W” on the back was worn by Hank when he was a college student at the University of Washington back in the 1920s. Hank said “All the guys wore white corduroy pants and these bright yellow rain slickers. It was our unofficial campus ‘uniform’ back then.”
  • A box filled with antique buttons – it belonged to the mother of a resident born in 1908. Mel remembered sitting on the floor playing with the button box and stringing buttons onto a piece of heavy button thread while his mother worked at her treadle sewing machine. Mel told us “I was the youngest child, and I felt that I was special, to be spending time with my mother when all my brothers and sisters were in school.”

Hearing Others’ Stories
I am still surprised when the residents tell me that family members have no interest in having them share objects and memories of their past. I have witnessed their enthusiasm and excitement as these elders tell their stories and answer questions. They are great storytellers and thoughtful listeners. The seniors beam with pride and satisfaction when they tell a story that holds another’s interest and attention. The residents like being praised and are generous with praise to others. So often, in a group that may have lived together for years, I hear comments like “I never knew that about you,” or “Why didn’t you ever tell us that story before?”

Company Comes Calling
These older folks appreciate variety. For audiences I see weekly, I often take guests with me. My 6-year-old granddaughter, Erika, came with me one day and brought an assortment of stuffed animals from her collection. She introduced each one by name and if one could be wound up or if it made a sound, she demonstrated. The seniors loved having a child in their midst and began telling stories about their favorite toys as children: homemade wooden blocks, using wooden thread spools as blocks, playing hoops (no, not basketball), and making paper dolls from the pages of the Montgomery Ward catalog.

Musical Memories
I sometimes take other storytellers and musicians with me. We each have our own style and it broadens the horizons of those who can no longer travel to cultural events. Music can be as healing as stories and is just as powerful at evoking memories. The residents enjoy the familiar: old show tunes, songs from the Big Band Era and World War II. Some audiences like sing-alongs. Often the elders tell stories of USO dances, listening to radio shows, the popularity of ball rooms during the thirties and barn dances in the forties. The residents also enjoy new experiences. I have a friend who plays Japanese Koto and they love her performances, even though these elders had no previous exposure to the instrument. Another friend writes songs based on Biblical stories and performs them singing and playing guitar. He spins personal story between the songs. I have seen residents with attention spans too short to follow a story of more than 3 minutes in length, listen to these songs for 45 minutes with hardly a break in eye contact.

Residents Guide the Way
As I get acquainted with the residents, I often use their backgrounds and interests as program themes. One widow, whose husband had grown prize-winning roses, was touched when I put together an entire program of stories about roses. Another resident, who was a practicing physician for 40 years, liked a selection of stories about folk remedies and the practice of medicine during the Depression. I’ve put together programs about farm wives, one-room school- houses, and music teachers. One former teacher asked me to share the history of “The American’s Creed” for a July 4th program. I even researched Burma-Shave rhymes after one woman said how much she and her family loved those signs as they traveled across the country. Your audience will take you to places you might not go otherwise if you will let them. Willingness to let them participate gives them a sense of “ownership’ of the programs; it honors them to have input and be able to share.

Stories Needed More Than Ever
A close friend tells a story of going to visit an elderly relative in a nursing home. In the next room an old man was crying out, “Nurse, nurse, I’m lonely”, repeating this over and over between heart-rending sobs. My friend asked the nurse what this was all about. The nurse replied, “He has outlived all his friends and relatives and no one comes to see him anymore; and I can’t spend all day holding his hand.” I see this scene played out frequently. Oh, not every resident verbalizes it. The message may be conveyed through anger or withdrawal. I see elders dying of loneliness… there are people all around them and their basic physical needs are being met, but they feel unconnected to life. I schedule my programs so that I have time to spend with the residents after the story program. Listening to more of their stories, holding hands, and sometimes just sitting in silence with them can be very healing. It helps them feel valued when someone takes time to be with them with no agenda.

Recently, one of the facilities where I do story programs hired a new administrator. When I met him, he asked me about my storytelling. “What exactly is it that you do?” He was familiar with storytelling as a performing art but he couldn’t grasp the interactive aspects of sharing stories with the residents. A nurse’s aide overheard our conversation and explained to this man that what I did was not at all complicated. She said, “Kathy simply loves our residents and they love her back.”

I have seen many changes in retirement communities in the four years I have been presenting story programs there. Most facilities are grossly understaffed. In the assisted living centers where I tell stories, I observe that residents’ basic physical needs are met; they are clean, well-fed, and receive the appropriate medications. But the staff does not have the time (nor, in some cases, the training) to meet emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. Additionally, activities budgets are being cut. Many facilities are now looking for volunteers to come in and do activities that in the past they have had as paid positions. As the arena changes, we storytellers (especially those of us without healthcare professional credentials) must be prepared with solid programs, ready to show how practicing storytelling as a healing art improves elders health and quality of life.

Bibliography of Resources

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. Villard Books, New York, NY, 1988.

The Chicken Soup for the Soul Series compiled by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, et al. Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL

The Christmases We Used to Know. Reminisce Books, Greendale, WI,1996.

For Everything a Season by Philip Gulley. Multnomah Publishers, Sisters, OR, 1999.

Front Porch Tales by Philip Gulley. Multnomah Books, Sisters, OR, 1997.

Gifts of the Heart by Bettie B. Youngs, Ph.D., Ed.D. Health. Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL,1996.

Gifts of the Spirit by Ardath Rodale. Daybreak Books, New York, NY, 1997.

Good Old Days on the Farm. House of the White Birches, Berne, IN, 1996.

Home Town Tales by Philip Gulley. Multnomah Publishers, Sisters, OR, 1998.

I Know…I Was There by Clancy Strock. Reminisce Books, Greendale, WI,1997.

It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It by Robert Fulghum. Villard Books, New York, NY, 1989.

Journey of the Heart by Gerhard E. Frost. Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN, 1995.

Lessons from Mom compiled by Joan Aho Ryan. Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL, 1996.

Maybe (Maybe Not) by Robert Fulghum. Villard Books, New York, NY, 1993.

Mentors, Masters, and Mrs. MacGregor compiled by Jane Bluestein, Ph.D. Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL, 1995.

The Small Miracles Series compiled by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal. Adams Media Corporation, Holbrook, MA.

The Planter of Seeds Series compiled by Brian Cavanaugh, T.O.R. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

The Stories for the Heart Series compiled by Alice Gray. Multnomah Publishers, Sisters, OR.

Taste-Berry Tales by Bettie B. Youngs, Ph.D. Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL, 1998.

True Love by Robert Fulghum. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 1997.

UH-OH by Robert Fulghum. Villard Books, New York, NY, 1991.

When Families Made Memories Together, Reminisce Books, Greendale, WI, 1994.

This article first appeared in Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 3, Spring 2002

Kathy Murphy works as a freelance storyteller in the Greater Seattle area, where she specializes in programs for senior adults residing in assisted-living centers. She is the mother of three and grandmother of three, which has given her many opportunities to share “love gifts” of stories. Kathy is training in Pastoral Care and combines her lay ministry with storytelling in hospital and Hospice settings.

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