When I tell people I’m a narrative gerontologist, they usually look perplexed. I typically follow-up with something like, “I study stories that older people tell and write.” Most of the time, people then give me the name of someone they know who's had an interesting life, usually someone who has traveled extensively, played a key part in a battle — something with a movie-esque quality. I want to respond by telling them that that is the exact opposite of what I do or what I'm interested in, but I find that my saying so does little good. Something about stories are compelling, inspiring, cautionary, exhilarating. Stories are who we are, aren't they?
What I have found over the years, both academically and in my own life, is that there are many types of stories. There are the stories we tell others, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we hear, the stories we wonder about, the stories we dare not put into words, and so on. In other words, stories aren't so simple of a concept after all. I first became aware of this when, as a graduate student, I was asked by one of my professors, Tom Cole, to create a writing workshop for older people. I immediately called my mother, who was in her late 60s at the time, to ask her what she would be willing to write about herself. She told me then that she had never done anything interesting, exciting or important in her life, and that I should talk to my father instead, a man who had traveled the world. "What about raising us?" I asked in reference to myself and three siblings. "That's what I did. It's not what you write or tell stories about, unless it's something funny or sad or special in some way."
My interest in narratives as a gerontologist is in those exact moments that my mother, and many others like her, would feel didn't warrant some sort of telling. It has pushed me in my own thinking to wonder: What sense can we make of the stories that people tell us — as researchers, siblings, parents, friends, and so on — knowing that there are many stories that are, for whatever reason, untold? The overall theme of much of what I write about regarding narrative gerontology is therefore centered on challenging existing assumptions of stories and pushing boundaries to explore what has previously been unsaid. For example, if one were to ask an older person to describe his or her life, my question would be: How much of what that person said really describes what he/she thinks of their life and how much is a result of what he/she thinks you want to hear, or what he/she thinks is the "right" story to tell? This speaks to a bigger notion of stories, the idea of cultural boundaries and scripts for what types of stories we tell as well of issues of power regarding whose stories are considered worth listening to. In the case of older people in particular, a group that is often devalued in many respects by the dominant, younger culture, stories can be limited to romanticized tales of the past (e.g., the war years, a life-long love) as reflected in the traditional memoir format that is used in most life story work. Such stories may or may not reflect that person's current view of self, or be the stories that lie deep in their heart, stories that may be hard to listen to or difficult to tell, or stories that may even defy traditional formats (e.g., interviews, first-person narratives), and be better suited to experimental forms such as poetry or third-person stories (i.e., stories where the teller describes his/her experience through the perspective of another, becoming a he or she instead of an "I" in the story.)
Overall, I think it's important to think deeply about what stories mean — their potential, their limits, their strengths and their shortcomings — in order to better understand the experience of growing older.
For more on this topic, check out Dr. de Medeiros' new title, Narrative Gerontology in Research and Practice.