Listening to Stories as a Way to Connect with Your Dad on Father’s Day

By stepping into your loved one’s world—even if it’s not your reality—you may both find a greater sense of peace.

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- Posted on May 21, 2020

An older gentleman talking to someone over the phone.

You want to connect with your dad in a special way on Father’s Day, so you ask him a question, hoping to trigger a warm recollection, despite his memory loss. You might ask, “What was your dad like?” It could be that the question triggers a story that’s right on target—his dad was a doctor and they made house calls in the middle of the night together. This gives you new insight into your grandfather’s life and his relationship with your father, and it holds meaning to you.

It could be, however, that your dad’s dementia is more advanced and the question leads to an answer that has nothing to do with his father, or with anything you know of as the truth. Maybe he wants to talk about another family member—his mother who rode horses on the farm where she grew up. Or maybe he describes someone you’ve never heard of. It could be that something in his immediate surroundings has caught his attention—a butterfly that’s landed on the window or a color you’re wearing. It could even be that the question shuts him down, as if he’s embarrassed that he’s confused or can’t remember anything about his own father.

What would happen if instead of trying to steer your dad back to the subject at hand, you were to go with the flow, enter his world and encourage him to talk about whatever he wants? Could this be an opportunity to connect in an entirely new way—a Father’s Day gift to both of you?

Lori La Bey, CEO and founder of Alzheimer’s Speaks, learned a valuable lesson about living in the moment when she opened herself to listening to her mother without attempting to correct stories that didn’t quite gel with her reality. La Bey discovered the joy that can come with embracing the present, when her daughter paid her grandmother a visit. “My daughter’s boyfriend at the time could only talk about cars, so that’s what they talked about.

Grandma said she had a pink Cadillac with spinners and a sound system, even though she didn’t know what those were. She’d never had a pink Cadillac, but it didn’t make any difference. They had a great conversation,” La Bey told Guideposts.org. “When people do that, they’re allowing themselves to be peaceful because their loved one’s peaceful, and it’s like a higher level of peacefulness when we feel it through someone else.”

The nonprofit organization TimeSlips invites this sort of creative storytelling in order to “shift away from the expectation of memory toward the freedom that imagination can bring.” Founded by MacArthur Fellow Anne Basting, TimeSlips describes itself as an international network of artists and caregivers committed to bringing joy to late life. It offers a recently expanded online Creativity Center with more than 300 free resources and activities to facilitate meaningful engagement for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, their families and caregivers.

“When we do try to connect, our impulse is to draw on the past,” according to the organization’s website. “But for people with memory loss, this approach can lead to shame and embarrassment, focusing on who the person was rather than accepting and valuing who they are now.” The challenge is to open up to word-play and let go of any desire to “clean up” language. The point is to experiment and play with expression, and to understand that there are no wrong answers.

The TimeSlips Creativity Center includes ideas on ways to ask “beautiful questions (“What is the most beautiful sound in the world?” or “What is something you could teach someone?”); prompt a “gentle conversation” to inspire simple sensory responses; and use photographs and open-ended questions to “imagine a story” with your loved one. TimeSlips also provides training and has a network of creative facilitators to lead families through its techniques. It has expanded its online offerings even more to adjust to Covid-19. In a 2010 study, University of Missouri researchers found that participation in TimeSlips improved communication skills and positive affect in persons with dementia.

Current data also suggests that there are several benefits to storytelling, from improved memory to better mood to better interpersonal relationships, according to an article published on the verywellmind.com website, an online mental health resource and partner of the Cleveland Clinic. The article offers storytelling tips, like, “get excited,” “channel emotions,” and “smile.” Fleshing out the last tip, for example, it offers: “You can hear a person smiling. When a person tells a story with a smile on their face, subtle intonations in voice change.”  

The Alzheimer’s Association suggests listening and trying to find meaning in what a person who has dementia is saying. “Consider the feelings behind words or sounds,” the organization’s website says. “Sometimes the emotions being expressed are more important than what’s being said.”

So, why not encourage your dad this Father’s Day to unleash his imagination through storytelling? If you need a caregiving hand—either because you have to be physically separated from your dad this year due to Covid-19 social distancing measures, or just because you’ve realized that you can’t do it all—you may want to consider hiring an in-home aide for additional companion care. Together, whether virtually or in person, the three of you may want to try asking a few “beautiful questions” that could open you all to a different approach to communication. This could be an opportunity also for a new care aide to get to know your dad and to learn things about him that may not have come up otherwise.  

And if you want to preserve what your dad has to say, consider exploring the StoryCorps Memory Loss Initiative, which encourages people with various forms of memory loss to share their stories with loved ones and future generations.

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