Monday, April 25, 2016

Tip #11 Focus on one story at a time.

The Tip:
This tip is one of my favorites because it's really easy and also really powerful. An indicator that an older adult has had trouble trusting people is that he or she goes from one story to another with trouble stopping, causing both the older adult and you to be emotionally exhausted after the conversation. You may be the first person who has reached out to him or her in decades - it's awesome but also an unfamiliar experience for the older adult. So how do you know if the older adult you are approaching has trust issues, before the storytelling begins? You may not. And by the time the run-on stories start happening, it's too late to stop them. It will be hard to cut the older adult off without coming across as disrespectful. Instead, try this: prevent run-on stories before they happen with every older adult you approach. Set the tone of your conversation to be fun and easy by asking to hear just one single story. That way, when the topic starts to switch, all you need to say is, "That sounds like a great story for next time!" When you put it this way, what you are really saying is that you will be back to spend more time together, and I bet your older adult bud will laugh the happiest laugh you have ever heard.

The Moment:
As I get to know my older adult buds through spending time listening to their stories, I find out in hindsight that many of them came in with trust issues - because they would actually write stories about their own before vs. after transformations. I learned that story by story, step by step, older adults will transform at their own pace. I learned that the simple effort to focus on a single story every time will lead to unbelievable transformations. Below is a pair of stories that taught me that. 

The Stories:
Josie Miller

Images of fabrics of numerous textures, prints and colors; my grandmother’s hands as she held the scissors and cut into the clothes; the old heavy black Singer sewing machine with engraved golden print that sang smoothly like a locomotive as grandmother guides fabric beneath the needle that rose and fell to create a stitch.

I had never owned a store bought dress.

Josie Miller
I Never Wore a Store Bought Dress

I love coming to writing group because everyone is so pleasant and I love hearing the stories, written by group members.  This is about my fourth session and my enjoyment has increased with each class.  Also, with each class I discover something new about myself.  One week I wrote a story describing what I saw, as my grandmother made one of my many dresses.

When I finished, I read the story to the class.  Seeing the attention they paid as I read my story and hearing their sounds of appreciation, filled my heart with joy.

I’ve never before belonged to a group and trusting people in groups had never been easy.  That’s why when I finished my story about my grandmother’s sewing and the group suggested I title my story “I Never Wore a Store Bought Dress” I could not accept their suggestion.  Later I thought about how often I have rejected ideas from others, simply because I didn’t believe in what they were saying.  I wish I had accepted the title the group had given me, because it was a perfect title.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Tip #10 Get in the groove.

The Tip:
When you land in your groove, know how AWESOME that moment is - and then just stay there! Have you ever seen a vintage record player or a picture of it? The way it works is so simple and amazing. "As the disc begins to spin on a turntable, an arm drops to the outer edge of black vinyl record. After a brief pause, you are greeted by tunes that sound rich, but not perfect, and sometimes the needle skips across a groove, interrupting a song." (source: electronics. How does this translate to storytelling? The drop of the turntable arm is equivalent to you showing up to visit an older adult or giving him or her a call. The arm freefalls until the downturned needle at the end meets the record. That precise moment is when you and the older adult connect emotionally through a breakthrough story. You are the needle; the older adult is the disc. Before this moment, you may have exchanged pleasantries, small talk or less emotional, more factual stories, but when this story happens, you will know it, because it will feel different. After this moment, you are bonded into one continuous motion, making music together as though effortlessly. Sometimes distractions happen to take you out of the groove, but don't worry, just get right back into it and music will continue to play. Imperfections and struggles are just part of the process, and will make your music - your shared journey - even richer and more beautiful.

The Moment:
The first definition that pops up online when I type in "get in the groove" is this. "To enter into the spirit of the situation or circumstance of the moment. The groove is really the track on an old record in which the needle of the record player had to ride in order to reproduce the music – so the meaning is figurative." (source: I love that for both the meaning and the visual imagery. When this tip occurred to me, I went right to my computer to reread Mo's story! Nothing like a good childhood story by one of my older adult buds to bring the historical reference of the tip back to life, and help this tip stick!

The Story:
Mo McCooper
His Master’s Voice

The first records I ever heard were played on a turntable. They went around on top of a piece of wooden furniture called a Victrola at my Grandmother’s row house on Stanton St. in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia, PA.  The large records, as I recall, were almost as big as a round kitchen or office clock today. My favorites were recorded during the World War I years and were titled “Don’t You Believe It!” and “She Lived Next Door to the Firehouse.”  They were funny songs, and all my cousins loved them.  The record player had a handle on the side, which we took turns winding so that the music would keep playing.  In the middle of the large records were pictures of a dog with his head cocked so that one ear was in line with the music coming out of the original phonograph from the RCA Victor manufacturing plant in Camden, New Jersey.  The title of the picture is “His Master’s Voice.” Thanks Grammom!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Tip #9 Make this your me-time.

The Tip:
Everyone needs a little me-time but no one gets enough. Don't think of your time listening to an older adult as a chore on your to-do list; think of it as a breather from the list. Use this time to take care of yourself. Know that if you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of anyone else – this includes the older adult and other people in your life. It's kind of like grabbing a cup of coffee or your favorite beverage. It's really not a lot of time out of your day but it's just a little something that makes you feel good. As I grow older myself and have more responsibilities every single day, I have come to realize that me-time is one of the two most valuable things on earth. The other thing? Genuine relationships. How awesome is it that listening to an older adult's story can help you achieve both things at once?

The Moment:
A couple months into the start of the original group, I wrote a blog post after I got home from the session. I entitled it, "Detox." I wasn't referring to the changes I saw happen in the older adults, which by then were obvious. I was starting to notice the changes that was happening in me.

The Story:
Benita Cooper

Class felt nice today. We went half an hour overtime and we could have kept talking for hours more. Hattie said, “They must think we’re giving out money in here. We always leave the room with huge, silly grins on our faces.”

Today was one of those days when everyone had powerful thoughts that kept rolling and rolling. No one talked over one another. The seniors took turns reading, speaking and listening. And no matter who spoke, he or she got everyone else’s full attention.

I remember at some point, Helen said, “Of course everyone has a little heartbreak. Losing both my parents, losing a child, there are some events that I still haven’t gotten over yet. But I have, and I do have, a lot of happiness in my life. I do. I have happiness.”

What could you say to something so profound? Except – nothing. Saying nothing was the only appropriate thing the rest of us could do. And that’s what we did. Hattie, already moved to tears – was the first one who started clapping. Then the rest of us joined. We just sat around the table and clapped. I mean, where else can I sit in a circle with other people and just clap about the sheer power of a thought? It felt nice. Nice like spa-nice. Detox-nice. Feel-good-about-yourself-and-humanity-nice.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Tip #8 Grieve with the help of stories.

The Tip:
Cry all the tears you need to, and then – no rush, whenever you’re ready, this could take minutes or months – reread the stories that the older adult has told you. It may even turn some of your tears into a smile. And if you feel up to it, you can print out the stories and offer them as a small collection to the older adult's family. This turns the older adult's life into a permanent legacy and will really give the family a sense of comfort.

The Moments that Led to This Tip:
I wish this tip didn’t have to exist. I wish there were no big scary thing called death. I wish we the living didn’t have to feel so sad when someone we love passes away. I wish I weren’t so familiar with that feeling. But having worked with hundreds of older adults now, many of whom I consider my best friends, I am very familiar with the feeling. When I pick up the phone, and one of their family members is on the line with a subdued tone, my heart sinks knowing what I am about to hear. These blog posts trace my personal journey in learning to cope with news of death:

In memory of Arthur, part 1
In memory of Arthur, part 2
In memory of Arthur, part 3
In memory of Little Miss Mo
In memory of Aileen and Gloria
In memory of Gogo
In memory of Bernice and Helen

The Story:
In my conversations with one of our amazing lead facilitators in New Jersey, the topic of grieving came up. Diana handled it with so much grace and dignity in her Best Day group, that I invited her to share her insight with other facilitators in the country.

Losing a Best Day Member
Diana Clark
February 18, 2016

As a widow, the reality of death hit home and has left me all too aware of the possibility. It is a side effect of loss.  As a Best Day facilitator in a retirement home setting, I work with some members who are quite elderly.  As I have grown closer and closer to each person, the thought of losing any one of them makes me shudder.  And then it happened, and it happened again, and then again.  In every situation, the Best Day program has been a source of comfort.  Although the person is no longer present, we have an account of his/her life in his/her own words that will always be available to us.  We have been able to print out those precious words and present them to the deceased’s family.  How I wish I had such a treasure from my husband, my father, and my mother.

I am also the copy editor for our group.  Each year on my computer, I create an ongoing document for each writer.  I place a copy of each week’s story in the document of that writer.  On our yearly anniversary, we give a hardcopy of each writer’s stories to the writer.  In the event of loss, we present the family with a copy of the loved one’s complete works since the beginning of the program.  Taking photos regularly makes it possible to add current photos to the booklet we give the family.

Everyone grieves in their own way—whatever gets them through.  For me, talking about my husband is therapeutic.  I believe talking about the absent Best Day member keeps him/her present.  Humor is a big part of our group.   Before we know it, we are reminiscing and smiling whenever we speak of our parted member.  Death is part of life, and we must learn to accept it.  Fortunately, we do not have to journey alone.  Best Day has proven to be not only a writing group, but also a support group.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Tip #7 Look beyond disabilities.

The Tip:
This is a tip that follows on from the one before. If you can genuinely see the internal strength in an older adult (and this is something that only you can know for sure in your heart), you will look beyond any and all disabilities that he or she may have, whether it is physical (such as arthritis or blindness), cognitive (such as problems remembering things, language barriers or dementia), or other mental health issues (such as anxiety, mood or psychotic disorders). There is no need to be scared if you have never interacted with someone with a disability before. Simply treat him or her like a fellow human being and find a creative way to work around the particular issue this person may have. The Best Day storytelling process challenges the older adult to think back about past life experiences, pick a specific story topic for each session, write down the story, and tell the story with a positive perspective even when it is about a negative experience – it is meant to be challenging but not intimidating. For someone with a disability, modify the process as needed. It's ok if he or she repeats the same experience and the facts don't add up – remember the tip about honoring the older adult's version of the truth rather than trying to go after absolute fact? It's ok if his or her hand can't physically write – just write the story down as he or she verbally tells it to you. And it's ok if he or she has trouble seeing the positive in anything especially the first few times you talk – eventually he or she will come around.

The Moment:
This intimate moment will always stand big and tall in Best Day's history. It's the moment 17-year-old Olivia emailed me her reflections on Joe's story. She named her story after Joe's: "Vision". Together, Olivia and Joe shared their stories to a public audience just a couple months later at a Best Day community event. That was over five years ago and people still email me telling me how inspired they were by our dynamic duo.

The Stories:
Joe Garrison

One afternoon I was getting on a bus, waiting for a seat when some well-meaning person offered to take me to a seat.  However, he sat me on someone’s lap.  I was embarrassed and the person I sat on was angry.  I in turn was angry at the person who supposedly was trying to help me.  I could smell alcohol on his breath.  He said to me, “What are you arguing with me about?  You can’t even see!”

Another incident was when someone asked me if I wished I could see.  The moral of the story is I don't have physical sight, but I believe I can see.  If I am in your presence or I experience being with you, then I see you.  If I understand what you are telling me, then I see.  To see means to understand.  Movies and television are just as enjoyable to me as they are to you.

Olivia S. Brown

I’m used to hearing stories about “a party last night”, the “latest school gossip”, or what’s “hot” and what’s “not”, but I rarely get to sit and hear stories as simple, but inspiring, as those shared with me during my recent visit to Philadelphia Senior Center.

One may get to hear stories similar to those I heard last week every now and then in a blog, article or documentary, but there was something special in hearing them first-hand—from people sitting right across from you set in a backdrop of so many unique personalities and characters.
I was most inspired by the stories told to me by the visually impaired in the room.  They appeared to look at things from ways no one else could see.  Although they were blind, I discovered that I was the one who couldn’t see after I was enlightened by their insight. 

Overall I left the meeting thinking I need more people like them in my life.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Tip #6 See strength.

The Tip:
Too often, society depicts older adults as weak. I believe differently. I believe in their inherent strength and believe that they can help us find ours. Our storytelling group environment is built firmly upon the belief that older adults are our society’s leaders, not the other way around.

Same thing when you are approaching an older adult one-on-one. Try not to think of yourself as “helping” him or her. Try to consider how privileged you are to be in his or her presence, to be given access to the older adult’s hopes, fears, dreams. If you think this way, you will find yourself offering the older adult choices and freedom, you will find yourself backing off on instructions, you won’t feel the need to assign a story topic.

When you look into the eyes of an older adult, don’t see someone weak, see someone strong. Change your perspective. When the older adult sees how much you believe in him or her, he or she will let loose and have fun around you, and suddenly skyrocket in happiness, strength, confidence.

The Moment I Learned This:

For my 32nd birthday, my buds in the storytelling group pulled off the surprise party of the century for me… so far. (So far, because every year after that, they kicked things up another notch for all my birthdays and even through me two baby showers – all of which, have been mega surprises ;)

My buds couldn’t contain their own excitement. When I walked into the room, they already began singing “Happy Birthday.” I looked that our writing table, and it was filled to the edges with cakes, sweets, drinks, and fried chicken.

The cake was huge, and the drinks were heavy. I couldn’t believe my buds had carried all that from the store to their homes, and from their homes to the senior center. Many of them walk with canes. Our room at the time was on the second floor at the far end of the building – which meant my buds had to haul all the weight down a series of long, narrow hallways, after getting off the elevator. Plus, when did they plan all of this and delegate tasks to themselves? That must have taken a lot of work! If they could pull this off, I knew they could pull off anything.

A whole sea of happy emotions washed over me as they sang. And most of all, I felt grateful, surprised and proud. And I realized those feelings weren’t just my feelings at that particular moment, but something I feel when I am with my older adults buds every week.

I started thinking about all the little things they do for the group every week… tasks that they have spontaneously delegated to themselves over time… how really, they run the group, not me… Beatrice coordinates the reading sequence and keeps track of time; Aileen makes sure the table is quiet during writing time so everyone can focus; Norman stays after the hour to make copies of the handwritings for everyone; Mo stays after to straighten out the room; Robert asks if anyone has a birthday that week, and if someone says yes, Joe leads us in singing a song; and all of them take turns walking Joe, who is blind, downstairs to help him catch the van after the session.

I started thinking back, to the first field trip I ever took them on, to Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate station WHYY. We were invited by the station to give a special presentation to their reporters and staff. I was so worried about all the logistics, like how my buds would get on and off our van. And they turned out totally fine, beyond fine. We had a blast presenting at a state-of-the-art conference room with a huge screen, and just as much of a blast singing goofy songs on the way there and back. Laughing and singing with everyone on the van, I wondered why I had worried so much, for so many weeks before the trip. I realized that they were capable of great things and all I needed to do was to let them be, and motivate them.

The seniors burst into Happy Birthday song mode 4 more times during the hour of my surprise party. One time Robert started it, giggling; one time Joe started it, with a jazzy vibe; one time Greta started it, laughing out loud. And one time, just everyone, somehow, altogether, spontaneously, at the same time.

A Story to Help Remember the Moment:

Beatrice Newkirk


Our Writing Teacher

Our writing teacher’s birthday was last week. She went away so we had to have something for her this week. She is a good person. We love having her for our teacher. We have learned so much from her and she is learning a lot from us. Everyone in this class enjoys her. We all hope she has lots more birthdays to come. We want her to know we really love her. We all look forward to seeing her every Thursday from one o’clock until two. Madi (our teacher’s teen intern) has been helping out a lot. We love her too. We all love to work together.