Helen, a friend of mine who was mentally sharp right up until she passed away in her late 80s, used to preface her anecdotes with, “I might have told you this story before, but it’s a good one. You can listen to it again.” I never minded hearing her stories multiple times. She’d led a full life and held a variety of interesting jobs. She especially liked to talk about her days as a young single mother working in New York City in the 1950s at the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music, a philanthropic organization focused on supporting young solo musicians.
When my dad launches into a story, he is sometimes unsure if he’s told me before, so he asks, “Is this a repeater?” Like Helen, he’s an entertaining storyteller, so I don’t mind a rerun. Or to use the creative term from television marketing, an “encore broadcast.”
We all have favorite stories we tell over and over, wherever and whenever we can find an audience. We might first offer permission to “Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” but we don’t really want anyone to stop us. We want—we need—to tell these stories.
When I visit nursing and retirement homes to play the piano, my listeners tell me stories, too. Stories about military service, about deceased spouses, about why a particular song holds personal meaning.
I try to listen well, even when I’ve heard the stories before. I remember that Fred Rogers, on his PBS children’s program, used to say there’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth: We’re supposed to listen twice as much as we talk. I would add: Actually listen, not just wait for our turn to speak.
A couple of years ago, I saw a skit on Saturday Night Live that has stuck with me. I found it funny largely because it rang so true. Comedian Kristen Wiig played Glenda Okones, a candidate for mayor. She’s recording a campaign ad:
“A lot of people say I’m a bad listener. You may be sharing a story from your life and that’s gonna remind me of a better story—from my life. So I’m just gonna start talking louder than you and hopefully you’ll give up and stop talking altogether.”
Yeah, I know people like that. I don’t want to be one of them.
In senior facilities, residents are typically talked to more than they are listened to. Being a willing audience for their stories—even stories they’ve told repeatedly—lets them control the conversation for a while. And that’s a good, supportive thing I can do for them.
You’ve already met Charlie in another post. He loves the song “Tenderly.” Each time I play it at his assisted living facility, he whispers to me, “That song was the cause of my five children.” His line is an amusing “repeater.”
A couple of weeks ago, Charlie arrived in the dining room with his hand bandaged. He couldn’t cut up his chicken, so an aide kindly offered to do it. She sat down beside him and asked, as she tackled the task, “So what happened to your hand? Tell me your story.”
Charlie looked up at her as if he weren’t sure something that wonderful could actually be happening to him. She had invited him to talk about himself! She seemed genuinely interested! For a few minutes, that aide gave Charlie her complete attention. He basked in her gift. And he told his story.
Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.