Before there was writing, there was history. Our earliest history was captured in the most popular medium before ink and papyrus came along. It was transferred by word of mouth—also known as “story telling.” Academics call it history handed down by “oral tradition.”
The ancient poet Homer was one of the first to elevate storytelling to an art form with his epic poems the Iliad and its sequel the Odyssey. Both stories spanned many years of Greek history and involved memorizing hundreds of lines of narrative in a metered form. This form was so complex that at parts it even mimicked the sound of wind and the motion of waves to add a sense of visuals and motion to the lengthy recital. Think of it as the first multi-media experience.
Many thought the works of Homer to be pure fiction until enterprising historians discovered there was indeed a city called Troy, encircled by magnificent walls and shrouded in antiquity. No doubt some of the more creative adventures of the “wily Odysseus” contained early elements of a modern art form: the docu-drama. However, Homer’s insight into human nature and personal experience were as rich as any work of Shakespeare, and his stories related both historical fact and emotive engagement – the whole story.
Though few ancient scribes had the talent of Homer, thousands made their livings going from place to place to recite the works of Homer and others. They were professional storytellers, with incredible memories. When they arrived in a new town, they became the central attraction. Many became some of the first celebrity “idols”—in a culture that considered the art of rhetoric and storytelling the most powerful force in society. Indeed, the rhetor was considered either a blessing or a curse, depending on whether he embraced the role of philosopher (lover of wisdom) or demagogue (rabble rouser.)
As a PR specialist in the senior living industry, I understand and practice the power of storytelling by sharing the memories of senior living residents, many of whom were born almost a century ago. No history book can begin to convey the visceral reality of a blazing battlefield or a burning airplane better than a person who experienced it firsthand. No TV documentary can give me a better sense of the emotion felt when a loved one in the military returned home than the family who was there to receive them. The experiences are as varied as each individual; writer, soldier, homemaker, painter, teacher—the list is endless.
In your role as a senior living professional, you would do well to listen to these stories. Hearing them can suddenly transform the image you have of an individual in your community from frail or soft-spoken into his or her own type of Greek hero.
To be recognized for what they have done and the difference they have made may mean more to them than the finest amenities in housing and healthcare. While we owe them those things as their senior living providers, they deserve even more. We owe them recognition for their “story”—for their long day in the sun of human existence. Each has a story as unique as their fingerprints.
Ideally, we find a way to compile and share their stories with other residents, with their families, and with the community at large. It is their story that will live on in the lives of others – to inspire, warn, advise, counsel and console those whose stories are still in the making.
Perhaps our greatest gift to them is this particular form of immortality.