Life History – What’s the Story?

April 9, 2019

When I visited my mum this week, she’s been a bit down in the dumps lately. she started to tell me about how the dark nights during the war were good for “courting”. You were 14 when the war ended mum, what were you doing courting? With a glint in her eye she continued to tell me some colourful stories about her teenage years and her early working life. It seems she was very popular with the boys. She told me one boyfriend fell in a sluice on their first date and she had to take him home to her parents to get cleaned up. Another boyfriend gave her a puppy for her birthday and her mother used to leave the gate open hoping it would run away. She was always a bit of a rebel and got sacked from at least 6 jobs between the ages of 14 and 18 mostly for sticking up for her rights as a woman even at the age of 14. She said women were treated very much as second class citizens in the 1940s.

Mum lit up when she was talking about these times and the stories just kept coming. I found out more about her in that couple of hours than I have in the last 50 years. Not just events but about her ‘life’ and what matters to her, what makes her who she is.

This got me thinking about life story work. I’m always pleased to see one in a resident’s personal file. It is often the first thing I pick up to find out about the ‘person’ I am going to see. Some of them are fascinating and give you a real insight into someone’s life and personality with old photographs and anecdotes. However, often they are just a list of names, dates and events with basic likes and dislikes. They are not someone’s “story”. The facts barely matter, they don’t help you to understand the person. How did those events shape their life? You might know that somebody worked in a slipper factory, but did they enjoy it? Or, like mum did they hate it and get sacked for refusing to do overtime at 14 because they knew it was against the law.

Have you ever thought you knew someone and then one day find out something about their past that completely changes your opinion of them? Something that might help you understand their present behaviour and in turn changes how you relate to them. We all have our own “story” and telling that story helps other people to know us when we can’t properly represent ourselves.

Sharing these stories can make the person feel valued. It promotes an understanding of their needs and wishes. It can help the person strengthen bonds and develop closer relationships with family and care-givers. It gives the person, their family and care-givers a chance to celebrate and preserve those memories and come to terms with their losses.

Knowing someone’s “Story” is a privilege and at the very heart of providing truly person-centred care.

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Katie Farrar

Occupational Therapist

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