Storytelling – A Bridge Between Young and Old

“The greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling.”

Cecil B. DeMille said those words in relation to his craft, cinema. But storytelling in all of its forms is basic to our culture and our history.

“It doesn’t matter what age you are or where you came from or what your story happens to be. We are all people who want to connect together.”

A wise insight from Monica Schmidt, an English student at Mount Royal University (MRU) in Calgary. She and five other senior English students participated in a Writers-in-Residence program that brought the students together with residents at United Active Living’s Garrison Green community to hear – and write – stories of the residents’ early years.

Mary Fenwick and Monica Schmidt reading a story
Resident Mary Fenwick and student Monica Schmidt

“There’s become a definite separation between the generations,” added Monica. “And in projects like this, we can bridge that gap.”

“We are hearing stories from seniors that we would not otherwise hear,” said Dr. David Hyttenrauch, MRU Chair, English, Languages and Cultures. “We have a separation of generations and this project is giving us a way to overcome that separation and really hear each other.”

A life is marked by the events within that person’s life. They become the stories, experiences and the memories accumulated over the years. Stories are a way to pass experience and wisdom to younger generations to help them understand the world from a different point of view.

Sharon McLeay, who teaches journaling, describes storytelling as a valuable way for older adults to share their experiences and as a form of self-therapy. “One of the benefits of storytelling is that it allows us to make sense of and bring meaning to our lives. Storytelling is often used in therapy because when our experiences are organized in a story-like format, the refining process allows us to let go of any longstanding negative thoughts or feelings and move beyond them. Clinical research has shown this release leads to major improvements in health and well-being. By sharing their stories seniors can inspire others to share theirs and I think it helps the residents to see how much they have accomplished and how much more they still have to contribute.”

People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of immortality too. It goes from one generation to another.” – Pulitzer Prize winner Louis “Studs” Terkel

Storytelling is a two-way street. Both teller and listener get something positive from the experience. “It’s a wonderful thing for us to see young people,” said resident Mary Fenwick. “It expands our vision. It makes us look back on our life. It also shows young people that everyone over 85 isn’t out of it.”

“I loved every minute of it,” said resident Wendy Martin. “It helped me because now I will continue to write for my family about things in my life.”

“I think it’s hugely important to connect the generations like that and to learn from each other, because I taught her and she taught me,” noted Monica. “She taught me about history and about social issues, about the notion of memory and what she remembered and what stuck with her as an older person. The one thing she repeated over and over was the sentence, ‘people are people’. That’s why I write.”

For the students and the residents, the connections they made during the project will carry on, as will the stories the residents tell. As Frank Herbert, the author of the series Dune once said about writing, “There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”

The stories won’t be stopping anytime soon. Dr. Hyttenrauch would like to expand the project to include students in history, psychology, nursing and education to further build relationships with residents.

“We are beginning conversations that would not otherwise happen and I’m finding that so beneficial to our students’ growth and their experiences and I’m hearing back from residents about their experiences in working with the students and the kinds of relationships they’ve built with them,” said Dr. Hyttenrauch.

As for the connections formed: “I think we both learned that 95 and 21 are not all that different,” said Monica.

Related articles:

Generations Collide by Mount Royal University

Telling the Stories of a Lifetime

Minding the Mind – The Value of Lifelong Learning

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