Tina Kies, Shuksan Healthcare Center
Tina Kies, Shuksan Healthcare Center

Last summer, along with my older sister and our children, we made a 900-mile trek across four states for no other reason than to sit across a picnic table from our paternal grandfather and listen to his stories.

At 91 years of age, this World War II Army veteran had recently hung new siding on his garage, still raked the leaves in his yard, and had seen most of our great country through the windshield of his semi over many years of long-haul truck driving. To say his stories were fascinating would be an understatement. His wicked sense of humor and Midwestern upbringing added a layer of grit and wisdom to his words, which were matter of fact and full of a life gone by.

Sitting across that picnic table from my grandfather and listening to him reminisce about memories, some of which he hadn’t spoken of in nearly 50 years, I sensed a release from him: a transformation toward peace and reconciliation. During this visit and through his stories, we connected on a level deeper than I could have ever imagined.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  — Maya Angelou

Studies have shown that the act of storytelling is beneficial for elderly. According to Anne Basting Ph.D., director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center on Age and Community, creative storytelling stimulates an individual’s mind to remember, helping one’s articulation and promoting self-esteem. It has also proven especially beneficial to elderly living with dementia.

As we enter into National Skilled Nursing Care Week (May 13-19, 2018), I am encouraged by this year’s theme announced by the American Health Care Association as “Celebrating Life’s Stories.”

Having previously worked in a skilled nursing facility setting, I can attest to the benefits of incorporating creative therapies into traditional resident care practices. Doing so cultivates an atmosphere of shared purpose and belonging — not only for the residents but also their caregivers.

“To be a person is to have a story to tell.” — Isak Dinesen, author

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with the good folks at Mt. Baker Care Center, a family-owned and -operated skilled nursing facility in Bellingham, WA. I was able to learn firsthand how storytelling is already being incorporated into their residents’ daily lives. Their approach is not only forward-thinking, but downright encouraging and uplifting.

One of their approaches that truly sang to me (pun intended) was their “Personalized Song” activity — an activity that affords residents with a unique opportunity to tell their story to a local singer-songwriter, then have their own words turned into a melodic and memorable song that they and their loved ones can cherish forever.

Another one that resonated with me was an activity called “Memories with Pat.” This is an activity that, up until recently, was led by a resident named Pat. She would regularly gather her fellow residents, first allowing them to get comfortable and then immerse herself (and them) into a world of travel, occupation, love and life. Her memories were vivid and remarkable, just like her storied life. As residents listened, I was told that you could witness their minds being transported somewhere distant, but pleasurable. Pat recently passed away, making this activity even sweeter since it’s now her legacy at Mt. Baker Care Center.

Residents here are also encouraged to write — write about their life, their journey, their unique perspective on the world around them. One resident has even published an autobiography written about his time in the war. At weekly Men’s Coffee gatherings, male residents bring a copy of this book, reading stories from it and discussing them as men would do, infusing their own war stories along the way. (Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall during those roundtables?)

“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.” — Steve Jobs, entrepreneur and co-founder of Apple

Our world is full of extraordinary elders — men and women who carried our great nation during times of war, economic strife, political uprising and technological advances.

As a society, it should be our goal to do everything possible so that this fascinating generation has a sense of trust and belonging. Whether they live at home independently like my grandfather, in an assisted living community, with a family member or in a nursing home — our goal should be the same.

The emotional benefits of storytelling therapy with elderly are astounding. Studies have shown that storytelling:

•  Builds trust

•  Improves self-esteem

•  Encourages verbalization and communication

•  Enhances mood and social interactions

•  Creates empathy for elders (from the caregiver perspective)

•  Eases transitions into new environments

•  Creates friendships and relationships

•  Increases expressiveness

As this wonderful generation departs us, it’s our job to encourage their stories. We have historians at our fingertips, all of whom have experienced life’s splendor in different capacities — unique, informative, and awe-inspiring capacities. Encouraging them to share their stories not only benefits them, physically and mentally, but it benefits us all as a societal whole.

“In the end, we all become stories.” — Margaret Atwood, poet

As we began packing up for our long journey back home, my eyes filled with tears — not of sadness, but of pure joy to have been on the receiving end of such greatness told by a man who has lived for nearly a century.

I’ll never forget what my grandfather said to me on our final day. With sincerity and gratitude, he smiled, looking at me with those handsome eyes, and said, “Thank you for coming — these past few days have been life changing.”

Life changing.

It took a while for those words to sink in, but once they did, the writer and storyteller within me smiled with confirmation of what I had already known.

You see, storytelling is life changing.

Tina L. Kies is the founder of Chikara PR, a comprehensive public relations and content marketing agency. A nationally recognized and award-winning communicator, she has 20 years of professional industry experience, including five in the healthcare sector. For more information, visit chikarapr.com.