Friday, May 20, 2016

Tip #13 Solve problems together.

The Tip:
This is another tip that fits under the umbrella of seeing strength - or seeing the leader within - in every older adult, whether he or she sees it yet. As you spend time together, curve balls, emergencies and mishaps will happen. You may need to change your meeting place at the last minute because of the coffee shop you were meeting at is closed for the day. Or you may want to brainstorm a way to share the stories with the older adult's family members who have yet to show any interest in the older adult's life all these years.  Solve problems together, big or small, easy or hard. Ask the older adult, "What do you think we should do about this?" Let the older adult set the overall approach and then work together to figure out the details. You will emerge stronger as a team, and the older adult will emerge happier, stronger and more confident.

The Moment:
As I was brainstorming an idea for Best Day's first major storytelling event back in 2010, my mind was racing at a million miles a minute, but I couldn't quite put my finger on the right idea. I wanted this event to be perfect because I wanted my buds to feel honored and I wanted every audience member who show up to be moved by the stories they would hear. I put a lot of pressure on myself and I was starting to feel stressed. I got chatting with one of my buds, Arthur, after a group session, and told him what I was struggling with. Within a few minutes, we basically scripted our entire game plan. We finished each other's sentences. We shared a vision. I got goosebumps and knew the vision was the right one.

"Funny stories, suspenseful stories, sensitive stories, we got them all!"

"It goes on and on!"

"Mixing individual energies."

"From the end to the beginning. Then and now."

"Look at Us Now! We tell the audience, ‘Look at Us Now!’”

“Standing together, young and old, on the same stage."

These are just some of the things that Arthur said that day, that are still echoing in my head right now. I can still remember the glimmer in his eyes. Arthur has sung professionally all his life. That's why he's got all this talent about how to put together a good show. I decided right then and there, there is no reason to ever solve any problem by myself. The process of working through something tricky is such a great bonding experience.

And how did Arthur's vision pan out? Let's just say there was not a dry eye in the auditorium at the event. Below are responses from the audience about how moved they were by our older adults' stories - and by the love and comradery that our group shared on the stage.

The Stories (The Audience Responses):
I enjoyed listening to everyone’s thoughts. My heart was touched and I did cry!
-Kathleen K, age 27

Hi I’m Miyarrah (Miya). I am 11 years old. I would love to pledge a donation of $5.00. Your show was really inspiring. I loved it and I’m 11. One day I would love to volunteer, hope I can!
-Miyarrah D, age 11

This is such a neat undertaking and I thank you for all of your hard work to bring diverse peoples (age, race, religion, socioeconomic status) together. That is the result when people seek to listen to others. Really liked the time/day of the event. Such much love and respect. Love the no frills, all heart approach. To the handsome and beautiful Seniors – Thank you so much for talking to us today. You are all such an inspiration. I loved seeing the confidence, strength, and joy. You are a special group
-Kaleigh E, age 24

You all rock! Such a great means of communicating and sharing ideas, stories, and love. People often forget that seniors are full of experience, wisdom, and life, so this was a fantastic refresher and way of getting to know everyone. Thanks for being such an inspiration, Benita!
-Monica G, age 27

I think this project is truly awesome (!) especially if you are a dreamer and love to hear about old times, good times, and stories of wisdom. My mother (Bea) never ceases to amaze me with words of inspiration. I would like to be a part of whatever event you sponsor moving forward and encourage/challenge seniors to put on a talent show. I’m so inspired by the group. Thanks!
-Evangela N, age 52

I think this program is great for seniors! I know many seniors who like to talk about their lives but do not have the opportunity to do so. A person could learn a lot by going to this program.
-Sam O, age 23

I think seniors are so full of wisdom – we really need to honor and respect their unique perspectives. So glad to see you providing a forum to showcase their talents and life experience. You should take it to a national level – call Oprah!
-Trish P, age 48

This is such a great idea and clearly something that so many people can benefit from. I hope it continues to grow and because it clearly brings so much joy to the seniors who tell their stories and those of us who listen. It’s great to see how much support the seniors offer each other.
-Kelly Q

I learned about TBDOMLSF from my girlfriend who is a volunteer. I am constantly impressed by the happiness that I see in her when she talks about the stories. To see the same joy on the faces of the seniors made for an uplifting day. Thank you.
-Drew P, age 23

This program reiterated to me the fact that seniors are our walking, living, and breathing history. And most of what they have to say is not written in books. I enjoy them and their stories and I on a daily basis encourage people to get to know one of them or more a day. My mom is a great inspiration to us all and there are others like my mom out there.
-Sandra T, age 39

Thank you so much for coming and sharing your life stories. I was so inspired! And also encouraged to get to know my family better. Do you have some suggestions for what questions I should start to ask them?
-Rebecca L, age 26

Thanks very much for sharing your stories with us! It was great to meet you all. I would love it if any of you could offer some words of wisdom for how to mend a broken heart?
-Gina A, age 32

I loved today. It warmed my heart and made me feel so positive.
I have a question that I’d love advice on: How have you learned to deal with heartbreak?
-Katie E, age 27

You all show a great deal of patience, courtesy, and kindness for one another that I really applaud. You show the ability to respect and learn from each other despite being from different backgrounds. Please offer your advice to people in this world who often do not respect each other enough. How can we all learn to listen better and break down boundaries between people from different backgrounds?
-Robert M, age 28

I love the concept of your organization and applaud you for bringing this group together to share their stories. Keep it going. We can learn so much from our elders if we only listen!
-Christine H

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Tip #12 Listen again and again.

The Tip:
Listen with full attention and let each story sink deep into your heart. Don't just let the stories pass you by. Now here's the real challenge, something that may take some practice - keep listening even after the physical conversation is over. Let the stories' deeper lessons surface over time. When you have a bad day, or when you just need an extra little spark of motivation, sift through the stories in your heart and see if any one of them calls out to you. Without you having to do a thing, a story listened with genuine intentions will return to you, vividly, right when you need it.

The Moment:
When I was pregnant the first time, my older adult buds wrote stories assuring me motherhood will be awesome and I would do just fine. I trusted their advice but it was hard to understand at that point because (a) I had never had a baby before and (b) I was too nervous to take any advice calmly. After giving birth to my kids, both times, I found that my buds' advice about specific things would come back to me right when I was ready for it. It felt like my buds were right there by my side.

The Stories:
Beatrice Newkirk
Every Thursday

Every Thursday is when we come together to our writing class. We meet every Thursday at 1 o’clock in our class. There is so much love and respect. I can’t wait to hear new stories. We even hear about our teacher, Benita, expecting a baby. That is good news! We in the class wish her all the luck.

My family was so happy to hear the news. She surprised us all. Being a mother is the greatest gift. A child that is part of man and wife. Oh what joy it will be.

Beatrice Newkirk
The Best Time of My Life So Far

I have so much to be thankful for. First for God letting me be here up to 79 years.  Second for letting me be a mother, grandmother, and a great grandmother.  Third for me having 12 kids and teaching them to know right from wrong.  You have to raise kids but let them know who is the boss.  Teach them what I taught them.  Raising kids is a full time job.

Whether you have one of three or 12.  It takes lots of patience and love.  But most of all discipline.  You can’t let the kids raise you.  You are supposed to love and help and show understanding.

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.