We are all made of stories.
Some we share regularly as funny moments, jokes, or lessons learned. Some happened to us, and some we heard and made our own. Others, we keep to ourselves because they’re special, or too difficult, or paint us in a different light, one that we’d prefer not be widely seen.
These stories inform who we are, and how we chart out our lives. We are all a story mosaic, a collection of lived and fabricated tales, woven into our conscious and subconscious minds.
Stories are who we are.
Or are they?
Through Art Place, I have the chance to work with two groups of early-onset dementia (mostly Alzheimer’s) patients. One group has much more advanced dementia than the other. Honestly, all of my carefully crafted lesson plans had to be tossed out the window the second I met the groups.
Some things are harder to plan than others, and when dealing with seniors who’ve lived good full lives which are now trickling from their minds like sand through the hourglass, you can’t really plan from one week to the next.
My original idea was to bring the group from story crafting to performance, but that idea won’t work for these groups. There’s still so much to capture though, that it’s slightly dizzying. In a very good way.
It might take me a lifetime to decipher all that I’ve learned just from the first few workshops, but here are some early impressions, and ideas.
My first group is made up of the earlier onset folk, a group of men, most of whom like Star Trek or singing. (Needless to say, we bonded right away.) They have a lot of anger and resentment toward what’s happening to them, and they don’t want to be belittled. I understand and respect that.
First order of duty: get an idea of who they are. We just chatted about stories. That’s it. What types of stories do they like, whether heard, found in books or seen on the screen. From that, it became clear that, Star Trek aside, they love real stories. Stuff that happened in life.
So, we talked about their lives. A moment that shines for them. Something they’d like to capture.
They are able to write, and so they now get to write the beginning of the story they’d like to tell. The story they’d like to share with their families in a way that’s physically tangible. On paper, or telling on camera.
I’ve given them the homework of starting their story, and I’ll see how that goes.
My second group was a mixed gender group, and their dementia is much more advanced. The energy was completely different than the first group. More quiet, more accepting.
We sat in a circle, and I got to hear a bit about them. They made jokes, and I heard some fantastic skiing stories, including some funny ski lift ones. Their spirits were high and there was a lot of laughter.
There were also a lot of quiet moments. Those white spaces in books, where no words grace the page. Or where they were erased.
Some of them didn’t remember anything, so they read the back of their name cards, which held important details like date of birth, hometown, and what they liked to do.
Sometimes it triggered a memory, or a joke. Sometimes it didn’t, and we moved on to the next person, the weight of unspoken stories heavy in the air.
Then the next joke came and the silence vanished.
Following the workshop, I was chatting with one of the women who’d forgotten everything about herself. She apologized for not participating more. I was eager to put her mind at ease, and told her not to worry. And then I paused, and we let the silence stretch. She lingered. I waited, not sure if anything more would be said.
“We’re all just stories in the end, right?” she asked with a smile.
I didn’t know what to say, honestly. She hadn’t told me anything about herself, so if she’d forgotten her own stories, then what was left behind? A demure personality? A caring person? Or did those come from having lost the stories?
I honestly didn’t know. I was still working up an answer, when another participant joined us, having overheard.
“Honey, your kids have told me your wild stories. You’d make a good book!” And she began sharing the stuff that the kids had told her.
It reminded me that stories aren’t just our own. They’re other people’s, too. They live on beyond us, outside of us, become a part of someone else’s story. Like endless spinoffs interweaving generations and humanity.
I can work with that. I have one group where most participants will have something at the end to share with their loved ones.
The other, more advanced group, I’m not sure what we’ll be able to accomplish. We’ll do memory exercises and we’ll share some more laughs. Some will have stories to share. Others, only the back of a card.
But I’ll remember the stories. They’ll inform who I am, and how I view the world, and how I write.
It’s living art of the strangest order. And I can’t wait to see where the journey will lead.