This week I came across an article in Psychology Today (you can read it here) that alerted me to yet another show-stopping demonstration of storytelling as a healing process.
It told about an elderly patient with dementia who had become increasingly confused and combative at home. When her condition deteriorated following a fall, her family took her into their home to care for her. Then, following a seizure, she was hospitalized and underwent a battery of tests including blood tests and brain scans that frightened and confused her. She experienced hallucinations that intensified her fear. Because she didn’t understand what was happening to her, she created a narrative in her mind that made sense to her. She convinced herself she was the victim of terrorists, and that she was being tortured. She became increasingly fearful and angry with her family because she believed they had allowed it to go on.
Instead of trying to convince her she was wrong, the family offered her a different story to explain her situation. Instead of taking offense at her accusations, trying to change her behavior, or medicating her, they created an illness narrative. They helped her understand that she had a disease called Alzheimer’s that was causing her confusion and forgetfulness. They reminded her of her fall and the seizure, and what tests she had endured. Little by little it all started to make sense to her and her anger and fearfulness subsided. Once she understood what was happening to her, she was able to accept her family’s care and to make peace with her prognosis.
The authors conclude:
“A narrative is a powerful thing. A narrative not only makes sense of the past, but also allows one to see the self in the future. The problem is that we all know the future of the Alzheimer's narrative: gradual decline and the expectation of future difficult episodes. We know that we will have wonderful moments as well. Having this narrative, even with the known end to the story, has been a blessing. The narrative provides an understanding and a feeling of resolution. In addition, this shared narrative improved and repaired our damaged relationship.”
Never underestimate the healing power of storytelling.