In the name of industriousness and success, many of us have misplaced our connection to each other, but bridging the gap between generations and deepening relationships between medical professionals and their patients is a trend worth encouraging. Both intergenerational storytelling and the sharing of life stories in a professional setting expand our awareness of the person we are relating to. This information, gathered through respectful inquiry, can have immeasurable value in building long-term relationships with patients.
A Unique and Personal History
Each of us has a very unique and personal history that shapes the lens through which we see the world. Imagine all the life experiences you have had that have brought you to where you are today: how and where you were raised, in what generation, with what cultural background. Those personal pivotal life experiences mark your life story.
Getting the Backstory
Sometimes the answers to something seemingly complex are right in front of us if we are courageous enough to communicate. A doctor friend of mine once shared this story: He noticed a patient of his was super bubbly in the waiting room, but when she came in for her exam, her demeanor completely shifted. She was unable to look him in the eye, and he could sense that she really didn’t want to be there.
This behavior was beyond the normal apprehension he experiences from those who come to see him. By asking a few questions to understand her backstory, the doctor found out that her father was abusive while she was growing up and that all men of authority scared her. This information gave him the foundation to earn her trust by approaching her in a different manner. In the end, it was the key to the success of their relationship.
Intergenerational Storytelling Benefits All
My beloved grandma never left a rubber band alone; every doorknob in the house was covered in them. Why? I didn’t get it until I discovered that she grew up during the Depression, a time when there were massive shortages of even basic things, like rubber bands. A simple rubber band became precious. As I became more intrigued, she told me other stories that helped make sense of seemingly bizarre behaviors. Intergenerational storytelling allowed my grandma and I to become much closer, and aspects of her perplexing personality became endearing.
Worth Your While
Time is of great value, especially with today’s fast-paced society. Collecting more information about your patients’ lives may feel daunting in the short term, but in the long run it may be the very key to your success. At the core of this, it’s good to remember that our physical and emotional bodies can be seen as two sides of the same coin. The health or “dis-ease” of one side of the coin often affects the other.
As a gerontologist, I have worked with seniors and their families for the last 25 years in a myriad of capacities. Sadly, many of us don’t grow up living close to our grandparents. The American lifestyle tends to disperse us geographically away from family and toward different goals. This, along with our ageist culture, creates a fear not only of growing old but of old people themselves. Once we start engaging our elders and they start sharing their life stories, these tendencies and fears often dissipate. Intergenerational storytelling helps bridge the gaps.
Giving our elders a place to share their wisdom can offer great benefit to all involved. Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research published a research article in 2013 titled “Elders’ Life Stories: Impact on the Next Generation of Health Professionals.” The purpose of the study was to pilot an enhanced version of a “Share Your Life Story” writing workshop. The enhanced version included the addition of intergenerational storytelling and connection, based on the content of seniors’ writings, with students planning careers in the health sciences.
The results of this intergenerational storytelling study were focused on the students and were clustered into six themes:
- An enjoyable experience
- Insights into themselves and their own lives
- Exposure to life experiences different from one’s own
- Personalization of historical events
- Changed perception of elders and the senior housing environment
- Piqued interest in working with seniors
The article states, “The results of the study are consistent with past findings with regard to changes in attitudes and images of elders following intergenerational programs.” We need more of this dialogue to open our culture to the value of all generations, as the results are undeniable.
Nurses: The Superheroes of Communication
Nurses are asked to have phenomenal communication skills; they are the conduit that makes the relationship between doctor and patient gel. There are signs, both verbal and nonverbal, that nurses must pick up on to serve the highest flow of communication. Not only does this important role take patience, but it also needs a discerning mind and a whole lot of intuition!
There is a quote by leadership expert John C. Maxwell that states, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
One of the ways that humans know how much we care for each other and begin to trust each other is through the sharing of our backstory. Isn’t there something so solidifying about questions that give your life context?
To help assist in the discovery process, here are several questions that support both professionals taking the time to learn the backstories of their patients and those intrigued by intergenerational storytelling:
- Where did you grow up?
- Were you raised by both a mom and a dad?
- What was your relationship with them like?
- Can you describe yourself before your 21st birthday?
- Are there any significant life-changing events that happened to you?
- What has been your work or your career? How have you spent your days?
- What are your passions?
- Do you have a spiritual affiliation?
It is possible that gaining someone’s trust is the key to a successful relationship, especially in a scenario where intense listening and understanding need to take place. If there are any barriers to this trust, there can also be barriers to full absorption of the information being provided. In addition to translating medical jargon, nurses also describe medical procedures, dosing instructions for medications, and upcoming tests — all the while soothing their patients’ fears. At the root, genuine care offers dignity to the ill person. Therefore, confidence in the relationship is a must!
On a professional level, there has been a recent shift toward “patient-centered care” or “person-centered care.” Some are calling it a significant culture change. Patient-centered care essentially means that the patient is now in the driver’s seat. In this new paradigm, doctors provide their patients with all of the information and options they need to make decisions based on their own priorities. As we are all unique and have different circumstances and preferences, we will choose different paths of care for ourselves. In this new culture, doctors, nurses, and social workers must take the time to get to know their patients and what their highest desires are for their own quality of life.
“Patient-centered care treats the patient with dignity and respect, as one capable of making informed decisions and with the rights to express needs and preferences in treatment and expected outcome.” – Lawrence Gorfine and Douglas MacLear, Palm Beach Spine Pain Institute
Another important benefit to note about this style of care comes from a UC Davis study that found that “patient-centered care” actually lowers health care costs. “Patient-centered care has been identified by the Institute of Medicine as one of the key actions for improving our nation’s health,” says family practice physician Dr. Klea Bertakis, principal investigator of the study and professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Family and Community Medicine. “Our study shows that including patients in more of the treatment and care-planning discussion is not only the right thing to do, it is also cost-effective.”
Person-centered care can be risky. The root of this conversation is about “quality of life,” and only we as unique individuals can decide this for ourselves. Perhaps your very ill patient grew up in the country and has a pressing desire to be outside, with the sun on her skin every day. She is unsteady on her feet, so agreeing that she can spend time outside is a risk. However, the benefits she will experience from enjoying the outdoors could outweigh the cost. Of course, including caregivers in these decisions is important as well!
So it seems that we, as a culture and a collective, are starting to bridge the gaps in connection between generations. We are starting to see people as “whole” intelligent beings once again, as well as the value that this brings. Whether you are a professional in the medical field or a child of an aging parent, today is a great day to inquire more fully into the unique qualities of those you care for. Sharing life stories is indeed a movement worth exploring.