The power of storytelling to bridge the generation gap

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Kinga Dabrowska

By Kinga Dabrowska, customer relations co-ordinator for Milestones Trust, at Abbey House, Swindon SN24 4DS

When I was a child and got scared of something or couldn’t sleep, my Granny and great aunt used to tell me stories. Their words magically carried me away from my fear and worry and allowed me to explore new worlds.

They are both gone now, but as they approached the end of their lives, I remember sitting by their beds telling them stories about my life, my work and memories we shared. They smiled, relaxed and seemed to forget about the pain for a while.

Here I am now, 15 years later, working in a care home with other people’s much-loved grannies and great aunts. They have been either put on the difficult path of dementia or are simply reaching the end of their life journey.

At Abbey House we offer our residents a wide range of activities, considering their changing skills and abilities. Recently we tried something different and built links with a local nursery and school, inviting the children in for activities and to spend time with us.

It proved hugely beneficial to both generations. For our residents, it triggered powerful memories of when they were younger, of raising their own children and grandchildren.

It was fascinating to see how people with impaired communication skills suddenly felt motivated and willing to speak to children, to answer their questions, to make a sound. Dementia can manifest itself with challenging behaviours, withdrawal or awkwardness in social interactions. In the presence of children it all seems to subside, mood uplifts and alertness resurfaces. No one is indifferent when children are around.

Our residents recalled their senior role – becoming protective, adjusting their voices for the children, offering instruction and advice acting like mentors or parents.

Many of them have their family living far away and do not get many opportunities to see their grandchildren growing up. These visits give them a substitute and a trigger to help them to recall names and reminisce.

As for the children – they simply do not see limitations in people in the way adults do, and remained their usual playful selves, engaging, laughing, bouncing around and looking for the physical contact that often elderly people crave so much. A simple gesture like holding hands can bring a wide smile to a resident’s face.

Those children who do notice vulnerability, for example a resident sitting in a wheelchair or looking unwell, tend to be instinctively more gentle and understanding of their restrictions.

As we build our new friendship with the children of Abbey Meads Primary School, we invited them to help us celebrate International Storytelling Week at the start of February. The young representatives of the school’s writing club came in for a formal visit to discuss details. They spent some time with individual residents, asked some amazing questions in order to try and understand what people so many years their seniors could be interested in. Our residents felt so appreciated and valued with children’s attention. They talked about that visit for days.

The children decided they would pick a subject and write stories to share with residents. So last Thursday (1 February) the children returned with tales of snowmen to read and discuss. The teacher tells me it has given them a great sense of purpose for their writing. And for our residents, I am certain it stimulated powerful emotions, memories and imagination.

This is an exciting return, for the young and the old alike, to the ancient tradition of storytelling passed on from generation to generation – and without a screen in site.

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