Transformation through stories

Maria Benoit, director of mission and pastoral care at Youville Assisted Living Residences, believes that spiritual transformation is a fact of life, no matter how old you are. "We continue to grow and learn from one another even in old age," she says. "None of us is static. We're always changing."

In her role as chaplain, Maria makes herself available to anyone in need of spiritual guidance. She spends time with new residents experiencing the often bewildering stages that accompany their 80s and 90s. She'll visit people in the hospital recovering from a fall or illness. Many times, she is a reassuring presence for residents and their families at the end of life, offering prayers and emotional support.

Throughout a wide range of situations, Maria always tries to respect the spiritual changes we all experience as human beings, at every stage of life.

Maria has found that sharing, reading and discussing stories is one of the most effective ways to help residents process inner change. While she specializes in discussing stories from the Bible, she believes in the transformative power of all stories and encourages residents to share their own. During "reflection groups," held twice a month, residents are able to do just that. Each session offers a new reflection theme such as gratitude or forgiveness. Residents often participate by sharing personal stories related to the theme. "I am struck by the range of emotions people are willing to share, at times with great humor," she remarks. "Participants in reflection groups gain new perspectives on events that happened long ago as they share them with others." The stories -- and more importantly, the exchange -- have a transformative effect on the way residents experience one another and connect with their past experiences.

Maria also holds weekly Bible study groups. While the stories here are more explicitly religious, Maria's focus on personal transformation remains the same. "Stories from the Bible reach us by telling tales of transformation," says Maria. "Saul undergoes a transformation when he is struck blind by a light on the road to Damascus, spoken to by the Lord, and becomes Paul, a disciple of Christ. In other stories we learn about the ultimate transformation undergone by Jesus after his death. What these stories really reflect are the transformations we as readers, and human beings, experience in our own lives."

By their nature, most stories have to do with change -- things happen in a story, and the protagonist changes as a result. This can happen in an infinite variety of ways, with each new story expanding our awareness of the mutability of human experience. Through stories, we encounter new, undiscovered aspects of who we are as individuals and as members of the human race. Through the sharing of stories, we can process together the changes that come with aging.

Stories change us for the better, often with palpable benefits. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrated how stories can elicit healthy lifestyle changes in patients with hypertension. For these patients, simply hearing stories from other hypertension patients had a greater impact in lowering blood pressure than the addition of medication in a previous test group. Hearing the stories seems to have given these patients a unique, personal perspective on the disease, providing a sense of connection with fellow patients. The patients who heard stories were also more likely to change risk-related behaviors than those who simply listened to statistics from doctors.

Perhaps most striking of all is how people with advanced symptoms of Alzheimer's and advanced dementia take to storytelling. A study published in The Gerontologist confirmed that storytelling increases alertness in those with cognitive impairment associated with dementia. The subjects of the study got their cues from photographs, and were encouraged to make up stories about what they saw. Ann Basting, a co-author of the study, told NPR, "people with dementia start to forget their social role; they may not remember they're a spouse... a parent. They need a social role through which they can express who they are, and the role of storyteller really supplies that."

Last fall, professional storytellers were invited to share stories as part of a series offered to the public at the Cambridge and Lexington Youville residences. One of the most memorable moments from the series occurred when Norah Dooley, a Cambridge-based storyteller, encouraged audience members to come to the microphone to share stories about their first kiss. An elderly man affected by memory loss became uncharacteristically chatty, recounting the time he'd kissed his wife under water. When Norah remarked, "I've never tried that. How is it?" He replied, "You ought to try it!"

This moment illustrated how storytelling has the power to transform even the most unlikely listeners into storytellers themselves.

Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England. See www.youvilleassistedliving.org.

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