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Telling Senior Stories

Kimberley Fowler
By Kimberley FowlerJuly 4, 2018

At Commonwealth Senior Living, staff take the time to learn the life story of each memory care resident, including where they grew up, their hobbies, their profession and their day-to-day routine. These stories help staff better understand residents and the information is used to make life more comfortable and familiar.

But, the emphasis on resident stories doesn’t end there. The community is progressively sharing resident stories on their blog, and last year, Commonwealth Senior Living partnered with the University of Virginia to help share their resident’s stories as part of the University’s bicentennial celebrations.

“Sweet Memories” Senior Stories

It’s morning in Hampton, Virginia and one resident of Commonwealth Senior Living’s “Sweet Memories” community is up early to check on his crab nets. He’ll take the net down and collect all the life-sized, plastic crabs. Then, in the evening staff will restock the crabs and ensure the nets are ready to go for the next morning. It’s called muscle memory and it’s an important part of memory care.

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The scene, which is designed to make this resident feel comfortable, is just one example of the many customized life stations that Commonwealth Senior Living creates for residents in their Sweet Memories communities.

At the core of these life stations, and, in fact, most of the programming at Commonwealth Senior Living, is a story.

Twenty Commonwealth Senior Living residents across Virginia were chosen for the project, their stories were professionally recorded and every hour on the hour, the University’s radio station — WTJU — played a story in November 2017.

Erika Gennari, Director of Marketing and Communications at Commonwealth Senior Living, states that the idea, which piggybacks off the National Public Radio’s (NPR) hit series StoryCorps, was an important project.

“We really wanted to give families the gift of having recorded audio of parents and grandparents answering questions like, ‘How would you like to be remembered?’ and ‘What’s your happiest memory from your childhood?’” Gennari says.

The stories residents shared were powerful and touching.

When asked about his most vivid childhood memory, one resident from Norfolk, Virginia shared a visceral story of his grandfather teaching him how to plant tobacco; driving a stake into the ground and pushing it in with his toe. After he was done planting one row he would take a nap in the barn and described how cool the barn floor was. He remembers falling asleep to the smell of dried tobacco.

While the project was important to the residents who enjoyed reminiscing and sharing their stories, it also played an important role for the Commonwealth Senior Living community. “It gave us the opportunity to celebrate and learn more about our residents, who are like members of our own family,” Gennari explains.

The University of Virginia has other storytelling projects on the go, but the benefits of this one was widely felt. “Many residents are in their 90s and the stories they shared really weave the fabric of our state. Students from all over the state were able to relate to these stories,” Gennari says.

Will Senior Stories Be the Next Senior Living Trend?

While sharing senior stories helps record an important part of our history, fosters compassion and increases our understanding, they are also an important element of care and planning within the senior living industry.

Knowing our resident’s stories allows us to develop better care, better relationships, better understanding, and to become better human beings,” Gennari explains. “Learning your resident’s life story is essential for memory care. You simply cannot provide quality care without knowing about the lives of your residents.”

At Commonwealth Senior Living, the importance of senior stories is not confined to memory care. “Learning about a resident’s life story helps us develop a better continuum of care,” Gennari says. “Our residents want to forge their own lifestyle and drive the decision making, which is why it’s essential to understand what they want and need. For this reason, I think we’ll see more of an emphasis on senior storytelling in the senior living industry.”

Have you recorded your own story or senior stories of loved ones? We’d like to hear more about your experience in the comments below.

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Kimberley Fowler
Kimberley Fowler
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