Validation Training Institute

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The Value of Storytelling

I recently read a most instructive opinion article in the New York Times called, “We Need to Process What We’ve Lost,” by Emily Esfahani Smith. The author begins by discussing a technique developed by Japanese artisans hundreds of years ago to mend shattered pottery known as “kintsugi.” As each piece of broken ceramic shard was glued, lacquer was applied which was then coated with gold or silver powder, creating a uniquely beautiful and radiant vessel.

The idea of kintsugi was later applied to a philosophy of life which maintains that while bad things can happen which may shatter us, we can endure and even overcome them to heal and even shine. Smith describes three decades of research by a personality psychologist at Northwestern University named Dan McAdams, during which he and his team interviewed people about the narrative arc of their lives. After his subjects recounted to him the major events of their lives, early memories, relationships, etc., he analyzed whether their narratives were “redemptive” or “contamination.”  He found that even when people had the same experience, it shaped their narratives differently. A redemptive story finds a way to see good even in senseless loss, while a contamination story is filled with depression and lack of cohesiveness. The people who saw redemption in their lives fared significantly better emotionally than the ones who felt broken and lost.

Many people are now trying to process the shattering effects of fifteen months of pandemic on their personal lives. Some may simply choose to stride forward without reflection, while others are perhaps not ready to think, talk or write about it. Like McAdams describes, telling our story is part of finding some sort of resolution and can be redemptive. Each of us needs to find our own way of coming to terms with the pandemic and how it changed our lives.

Often older adults have bottled up their life stories for many years and may have lost the ability to verbalize their memories, which also resemble broken shards. Can they still be mended?  How can you help someone unlock his or her story? As Naomi Feil says, “Feelings that are expressed and received by an empathetic listener are relieved. Feelings that are not expressed and received gain in strength.” If we can listen to the stories and explore the arc of their lives, we can help the older adults living with different forms of dementia find resolution and maybe, perhaps, redemption.

Validation offers techniques for sharing stored memories and communicating with older adults living with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias. Learn Validation skills that can help you gain understanding and find empathy by participating in our on-demand Beginning Validation Tutorial.

The Validation Training Institute (VTI) is a non-profit organization that advances knowledge, values, education and research rooted in the Validation method. The objective is to nurture respect, dignity and well-being in the lives of older adults experiencing age-related cognitive decline and their caregivers. Our vision for the future is that every older adult experiencing age-related cognitive decline, and their caregiver, can feel the joy and love of meaningful communication.

By: Fran Bulloff, VTI Board President