Much has been written about the power of telling and sharing stories across cultures both to entertain and sometimes to educate with key moral messages. In my work with adults living with dementia I have also found stories a way of helping make sense of self and having the opportunity to move into a different imaginary world where anything is possible.
Reading between the lines
There are many universal themes in stories which include love, loss, friendship, journeys, death, conflicts and celebrations. What is evident in many stories is that there are layers of messages beyond the actual simple narrative itself, which may or may not be picked up by the reader or the listener. What is interesting in relating to people with cognitive impairment is that metaphoric meaning can be more readily accessed. Casson suggests that the secret of relating to a person with dementia is to ‘listen with the right brain’ to the expressive and poetic language of the feeling world. (Casson 1994) When people with dementia share their own stories, it is important to look beyond the literal words and listen to the messages behind what is being conveyed. Quite often a person may reflect back to a time when they were effective or useful, and when they are telling the story about their past, they will often have a ‘starring role’. The message to us is about affirmation of pride and identity – “I have not always been like this. There was a time when I was competent and valued by others.” (Knocker,2002)
Enacting a different role through story
I remember a story I told once to a small group of people in a Day Centre which involved the character of a Queen. There was a woman in the group who seemed particularly low in mood and withdrawn. When I tentatively asked her to play the role of the Queen for a few moments, her posture changed and her face lit up. I played the role of the servant and she enjoyed giving me very regal orders with great gusto. The interaction was brief but magical. She said with a big smile “I’ve never been a Queen before.” It was as if she had been given the respect and status she was feeling had been taken from her in recent months and years.
Friendships in time of need
Stories where someone is experiencing some kind of challenge or obstacle to overcome can also resonate with people with dementia who can relate to this struggle. The story offers opportunities to talk openly about these feelings. In one group I worked with a group of children and older people together and we read the story of ‘The Snail and the Whale’ by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, which is a story of how both characters were able to help each other out and develop an unusual friendship. There was an obvious analogy for recognising that younger and older people can offer different strengths and support to each other, and that we are ‘not on our own’ in tough times.
When sharing personal stories or reading stories from books, it is helpful to think of them as an opportunity to restore self-worth and open a window to explore feelings in a safe and creative way as well as have fun and a sense of escape.
Casson (1994) Flying Towards Neverland. Dramatherapy, Journal of the British Association of Dramatherapists 16 (2&3)
Knocker, S (2002) Play and metaphor in dementia care and dramatherapy, Journal of Dementia Care, Vol 10 No 2 March/April