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:
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.