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Interview: Aging Well Requires “A Good Strong Story”


Dr. William Randall

Dr. William Randall is project director of The Fredericton 80+ Study and associate professor in gerontology at St. Thomas University.

He has published numerous articles and several books including The Stories We Are (University of Toronto Press) and Ordinary Wisdom (Praeger Publishers). His new book with E. McKim, Reading our Lives: The Poetics of Growing Old (Oxford University Press) will be released in 2008. He is listed in 2000 Outstanding Scholars of the 20th Century.

Dr. Randall explores the subjectivity of aging or how it feels on the inside. To meet the challenges of aging, he argues we need a good strong story.

AHB reached him in Fredericton.

Ruth Dempsey: You begin your research, not with the usual list of statistics, but with, "Once upon a time . . . " Why this approach?

Bill Randall: Since earliest times, human beings have been storytelling creatures. We think, feel, decide, learn and believe in terms of stories. In fact, we experience our very selves – our identity, if you will – through stories: "the story of my life", we call it.

RD: You write, "Our story may be the most precious possession we all have, especially the older we grow." Can you please elaborate?

BR: Late life brings with it many challenges and changes, and because of these, it can confront us with an "identity crisis" that can be every bit as powerful as when we were
in our teens. To cope with that crisis and face those challenges, we need, in effect, a good strong story.

Too often, though, gerontology has dwelt on the bad news about the aging process: loss of mobility, agility, memory, or hair – that sort of thing. The good news has been all but overlooked.

What is that good news? One way of expressing it is that, the older we get, the "thicker" our story becomes inside of us – the accumulated memories and impressions of all the people we have known, events we have experienced, troubles we’ve seen and so forth.

Also, we can get considerable enjoyment from telling our stories and a renewed or enhanced sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. If our stories are ultimately who we are, then this is no wonder.

RD: You write that when someone close to us dies, that person’s departure "de-stories us." Can you give me an example?

BR: This is perhaps a strong term, I admit. However, I tend to think of close relationships, for instance, with friends or family members or with partners in marriage, as "co-authoring" relationships. In other words, a good part of my story is bound up with your story and with our story, too. That is, all the things that we’ve gone through together; that we’ve suffered, seen, celebrated; all the memories we’ve shared. So, when you go, a part of me goes, too – a part of my identity, a central subplot or chapter of my story.

RD: There are two sides to storytelling: the storyteller and the listener. Listening seems an elusive quality in our fast-paced world. But you believe we can find more opportunity to tell and listen to each other’s stories. How so?

BR: In a close and respectful "co-authoring" relationship, for example, with a dear and long-standing friend, we have the wonderful feeling that the person knows our story "inside and out". Naturally, they will only have their particular version of that story, which will not be exactly the same as the one we have of it ourselves. And they will inevitably "storyotype" us to some degree. But all in all, we feel not just familiar with them but safe somehow as well.

When they listen to us, they do not interrupt us continually to talk about themselves. Instead, they attend to what we’re saying in a deep and caring manner, which invariably helps us open up. We feel freer, that is, to try on alternative interpretations of events and issues in our lives that, for whatever reasons, we find painful or puzzling. "You can’t tell who you are unless someone is listening", it’s been said. Or as a sticker on my fridge at home expresses it, "What people really need is a good listening to".

And of course it’s not just in the context of friendships that such storylistening occurs; it happens in therapy as well, in marriages (ideally, at least), in support groups of various sorts and it can happen in a learning environment as well – a life-writing group would
be a good example – as we press past the superficial chit-chat and settle down to sharing with one another our deeper thoughts and feelings.

RD: You have called for change in the education of professionals to include the concept of story. This is a whole different approach, isn’t it?

BR: Yes, although discerning counsellors and healthcare workers have always practised it instinctively, the medicalization of old age does tend to reduce people to sets of symptoms. In many ways, it de-stories them. Rather than being Bill Randall – with memories and experiences, hopes and dreams that make me uniquely "me" – I become "the gall bladder in 13B" to the staff and eventually perhaps to myself.

RD: Your current research involves 80 and 90 year olds. These people have lived through wars and economic depressions. They have gone on to survive illness and personal difficulties. What are you learning?

BR: We’re learning various things, one being that what these people tell depends, in no small part, on who is listening! In fact, with a couple of colleagues, I’ve published on this very point some very intriguing findings.

We’re also learning that biographical aging and biographical health, if I can call it that, are every bit as intricate and as important as biological aging and biological health about which, of course, gerontology has amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge.

But again, most of that knowledge tends to be in the "bad news" category.

As well, we’re learning that, story-wise whether they realize it or not, these people are marvellously rich, complicated, many-layered beings.

We’ve learned too that memory is really quite mysterious in the way that, over 80-odd years of life, certain things tend to "stick", while so many other things don’t. Why is this? It’s a question that researchers really know a lot less about than you might think.

Finally, I go back to the point I made earlier, which is that such people’s stories can be a source of great strength (potentially at least, for it’s not automatic) for themselves. Remember, we need a good strong story in order to grow older and not merely get older, and also for others for those of us who listen.

There are many "life lessons", much wisdom that these sorts of individuals, and perhaps they alone, can teach us if we have the ears to hear.

RD: Finally, you say, "It’s never too soon to have a happy old age?" Can you give me some pointers?

BR: I’m convinced more and more that the most important thing we can learn in life is to actively, positively grow old and not just passively get old.

Indeed, the process should really start early in life rather than later, which is too late in other words. We shouldn’t be leaving it until we retire, when we assume we’re going to have all this time on our hands. We need to get going with it now, whenever "now" may be.

Learning to grow old, however, involves more than just taking care of our bodies through a healthy diet and exercise, and so forth. And it’s more than a matter of taking care of our brains through doing crosswords or playing scrabble to keep ourselves mentally fit, as vital as that surely is. No, we need to take care of our stories, too. For, again, they are who we are.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately. In fact, the new book we have coming out goes into this matter quite a bit about something called "narrative foreclosure". Narrative foreclosure is the sort of situation in which, technically, our life itself continues on – beyond retirement, for instance – but our story about our life winds shuts prematurely down.

We end up living in what one scholar calls "epilogue time" no more new events or chapters are likely to be added, no more narrative development will occur. Put another way, we live in the past rather than off the past.

Inside of each of us, I like to think, is a tremendous cache of "biographical capital" – in other words, our memories or our story. Yet, sadly, for many of us as we age, that story goes both undertold and under-read: as sad a fate, no doubt, as that of a novel on which its author has laboured for years to write, only for it to sit forgotten on the library shelf.

I see my work in narrative gerontology as helping to address this kind of tragedy and offer people ways of thinking about the aging process – on the inside, as it were – that will help them truly grow into later life.