The Purpose in the Repetition
By our very nature, we humans are storytellers. The sharing of information in the form of a story is so deeply ingrained as to be part of our very fabric. In Volume 3 of her fantastic educational series The Mystery of History, Linda Lacour Hobar quotes one of the west African griots—men who memorized their people’s history and were the storytellers of their own past—as he described his job[i]:
“We are the vessels of speech. We are the repositories which harbor secrets many centuries old; without us the names of kings would vanish into oblivion, we are the memory of mankind; by the spoken word we bring to life the deeds and exploits of kings for younger generations.”
These are beautiful, powerful words that illustrate so perfectly how crucial the oral tradition of storytelling is to our very existence. But for many caregivers of dementia patients, the difficulty is having to listen to our loved one’s repeated stories so many times that we’ve grown weary of hearing them. Sometimes in our impatience and frustration we interrupt them—or worse, we finish the story for them as a way of letting them know they’ve told us this one before. While the dementia patient’s memory of having already told the story is gone, what remains is the need to tell the story—the inherent need to communicate.
We must understand that as our loved one’s dementia progresses, it will become increasingly difficult for them to cognitively “come” to us and meet us where we are; it’s imperative that we realize we must go to them and meet them where they are. One of the greatest and most effective ways to do that is to actually engage them in the very stories we’ve heard over and over.
As we do this, it’s crucial to remember we’re not asking to hear the story again because we are seeking information from them; we’re asking in an effort to show them that we’re interested in what they have to say—what they need to communicate. When we listen to their stories and make eye contact and comments appropriate to the information being related, we are letting them know how much we love them and that we are interested in hearing from them. The result is a rise in their feelings of self-worth, and we make a connection that might otherwise have been missed.
If we listen to their stories very deliberately, really pondering and considering what our loved one is saying, it can be like a nostalgic trip in the proverbial time machine. You have an opportunity to learn about your own family history as they use their words and remaining memories to give you a glimpse of the world as it was when they were young. Like the griots, your loved one will, with their words, “bring to life” the “deeds and exploits” of the people who comprise your genealogy. Let’s please be careful to not hurt our very own “vessels of speech.”
[i] Linda Lacour Hobar, The Mystery of History, Vol. 3, 2008, Dover, Delaware, Bright Ideas Press, 41-42.