The inside story on long-term care

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Elizabeth Newman, McKnight's Senior Editor
Elizabeth Newman, McKnight's Senior Editor
One of the popular drumbeats in long-term care is about the importance of “telling our story.” But if you go to look for a literal story, you may find yourself coming up short.

At the end of a long day as a long-term care nurse, administrator or CEO, perhaps the last thing you want to do is read a fiction book that takes place in a nursing home. But we do ourselves a disservice when we underestimate the importance of fiction. Those who sniff that they don't have time to read “make-believe” and would rather read something “real,” are missing a larger point about why we read fiction. It shapes how we view the world by giving us insight into other lives.

This isn't just an avid reader preaching; science backs it up. In a New York-Times op-ed piece on Saturday, author Annie Murphy Paul encapsulates many of the studies that show how reading narrative increases the “theory of mind,” and that people who “frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated,” she writes.

On average, I read about 100 books a year, which includes a range of fiction and non-fiction.  A look back at my book lists shows how a few of the books I read gave a picture into the life of an elderly man or woman living at home and reflecting on their life ("Emily Alone," "Maine," "Old Filth"), a few used dementia as a plot device ("Turn of Mind," "Please Look After Mom"), and a lot involve death or dying  (too many to list, but my favorite was "So Much for That," which gets extra bonus points for tackling health insurance). Not only can I not remember any book involving a long-term care setting that I've read; I can't even find a recommendation (if you have one, leave it in the comment section below).

That doesn't mean I'm reflective of America's interests, but it does belie a few truths about what's available to readers. Authors may be reluctant to tackle long-term care for a few reasons. One, there's a widespread belief, right or wrong, that long-term care institutions are depressing, and that the market to buy a fiction book involving one isn't there. Two, there may be a desire to create a world that offers escape, especially if it involves vampires, solving a murder, or the belief that you too can morph from Ugly Ducking Into A Swan/Recognize that Your Best Friend is Your Soul Mate And/Or Fulfill a Dream.

But the third reason I believe there's a dearth of fiction involving long-term care is that writers often write what they know, and the experience in visiting a nursing home may be limited or non-existent. What that means for your future consumers, whether they are 15 or 60, is that they might not have any idea what goes on in your world. In addition to not reading about it, it's not like movies, television or video games are any more reflective of your lives or those of your residents. 

I can't convince the world of writers to explore long-term care for their next novel, and you don't need to give up your day job to start penning a senior version of "The Hunger Games." But promoting reading and writing has its advantages.

Consider inviting local authors to come speak or read at your facility, starting a book club at your facility, or even seeing if there's interest in a resident-run writing group.

And remember that when you hear the need to “tell our story,” there are multiple interpretations of what that can mean.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.