Friday, 23 August 2013
Elders Repeating Ourselves
By the time my great Aunt Edith was into her 80s (she lived to be 89), she repeated her stories a lot. I lived in New York City then, she in Portland, Oregon, and we kept a weekly appointment to chat on the telephone.
These days, I (now living in Oregon) speak a couple of times a week with an old friend in New York City who, in recent years and like Aunt Edith, repeats some of her stories to me.
In neither case did I, nor have I, told them that I already know that story. I let them speak.
Before I go any further, let's get dementia out of the way because that's not what I'm talking about.
It is not uncommon for those diagnosed with dementia to repeat the same sentences or stories again and again, sometimes in quick succession. And if you poke around the web, some “experts” will tell you that repeating stories can be a sign of incipient, as-yet-undiagnosed dementia.
Be that as it may, it's not what I'm talking about today and it is not what afflicted my Aunt Edith or my New York friend. Humans repeat themselves. Young people do it too.
Maybe old people do it more often.
One easy and obvious reason is that many elders' short-term memory is annoyingly inconsistent so we forget we've told the story, or we don't remember to whom we've told it and so end up retelling the same person.
Another reason for our repetition might be to fulfill one of Jung's seven tasks of aging which we all seem to come around to unconsciously: to give meaning to the years we have lived. Repeating stories to ourselves and to others helps put them in context and create a narrative of the life we have lived for ourselves.
It is a given that very young children like to have the same stories read to them repeatedly and god help any adult who, bored out of his or her skull in the 76th reading, skips a paragraph.
My mother told me that she started teaching me to read when I was three because she thought she might shoot herself if she had to read Little Red Riding Hood or Madeleine one more time.
I can sympathize. When Aunt Edith was into her 10th or 12th telling of the story about her childhood kitten Fluffy, I was grateful we didn't have picture phones yet so I could get away with the faces I made that kept me from screaming or pulling out my hair.
They tell us patience comes with age and so it has been for me in recent years - at least in storytelling regard. Even in person now, I no longer need to screw up my face to tolerate repeat stories from friends and acquaintances and sometimes I glean new information from the re-telling.
Plus, I have come to see that there is an inherent human pleasure in re-hearing stories we like. In this age of DVDs and DVRs and endless reruns on cable television, we can see our favorite movies and TV episodes as many times as we like.
And books too can be a pleasure to re-read. It's also why we like books that are series such as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, Michael Connelly's Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch or Steven Saylor's books about Gordianus the Finder set in ancient Rome.
Many people take great comfort in such familiar characters and their stories.
So I'm tolerant now of the repetition and hope other elders are with me - even if young people (as I did with Aunt Edith) find it maddening.
That's why it is probably a good thing for old people to hang out with others their age who are indulgent either because they know they do it too or because they don't remember the ending anyway so it's like a brand new story each time.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: On a Morning in New York