The Value of Intergenerational Storytelling
by Sara E. Lahti Thiam
“This is really starting to get interesting, because I have lots of stories to tell!” exclaimed one 95-year-old participant in the newly-launched Upper Peninsula Digital History Initiative (UPDHI) in Hancock, a small town in northern Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. The tension in the air was palpable as the four older adults and four youth participants introduced themselves around the table in the conference hall of the hosting organization, Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. In fact the woman quoted above, who turned out to be the project’s most captivating storyteller, insisted that her limited education level and current vision and hearing troubles would prevent her from being able to produce a video, and she nearly dropped out of the program. But once the storytelling got started the mood eased and the elder participants filled the afternoon with moving tales and funny anecdotes covering topics ranging from war and activism to surviving the long, dark Hancock winters as children. They were energized – and even surprised – that others were so were interested in their stories. And I was surprised when I left that conference room with an entirely new perspective on the tiny town I grew up in – which I thought I knew inside out.
Intergenerational programs are increasing in popularity in the US, as schools team up with organizations like AARP (see Rebok, et al. 2014) or community groups that match elders with young people, from toddlers to teens (Kuehne 2013). These pairings are often articulated as a socio-economic win-win, with retired elders volunteering in cash-strapped schools and at library story times, and children engaging elders with companionship and physical activities at afternoon tea events and summer picnics. Research shows that elders’ physical and mental can health improve from these types of physical and cognitive activities (Sakurai 2016; Fried, et al. 2004). In fact, it is commonplace to find cost-benefit analyses of these health outcomes in program justifications – calculating the potential social cost savings of delaying cognitive and physical decline to keep the elderly out of managed care settings. Finally, working with elderly people is often perceived as a charitable activity – something that fosters positive youth development, allowing adolescents opportunities to “give back” to their communities, which has been shown to have positive impact on adolescent academic performance and health behaviors (Schmidt, et al. 2012).
These documented socio-economic and health-related benefits of intergenerational programs help to secure funding to ensure that as the US population ages, increasing numbers of seniors can stay socially engaged. Nevertheless, this framing hints at underlying social assumptions about the relatively reduced values of non-productive social roles of both children and elders in capitalist settings. While elders are revered for their xam-xam, best translated as wisdom, among the Wolof of Senegal, where I have carried out most of my work as an anthropologist, popular conceptions of cognitive development tend to have the opposite effect in the US, where age is frequently deemed a deficit (Gullette 2011; Palmore 2001). Therefore, I point out that a cultural shift in perspective about cognition through the life span is needed to allow intergenerational pairings such as those in the UPDHI to function as a tool for social empowerment, to incite intergenerational dialogue and respect that move beyond charity, and stir emotions aside from its concomitant sentiments of sympathy and gratitude. Or conversely, perhaps intergenerational programs themselves can be designed to promote such a cultural shift.
Rather than focus on intergenerational engagements as solely an efficient use of time and human capital to effectively take care of one another, I draw on life span cognitive development research to make a case for what anthropologists have long advocated: the value of intergenerational storytelling for knowledge and culture transmission, and the unique mental aptitude of many older adults to do so by drawing on a wealth of experiences (e.g. Jackson 2005). Cognitive performance charts show general declines in fluid faculties like processing speed and recall memory throughout adulthood, with performance peaking in late adolescence and early adulthood (Berger 2014). In later life, adults often outwardly manifest these declines, with slower speech and coordination, longer reaction times, and increasing trouble remembering names or solving brain teaser-type puzzles that require adaptability to novel problems (Berger 2014). Although these essential faculties underlie cognitive functioning, these measures of thinking only reflect a portion of human intelligence. In fact, because these fluid abilities are easily quantified, and even monetized, and well-documented to decline universally over time, using such widely-used measures to quantify intelligence may contribute popular associations between aging and unilateral cognitive decline. Such perspectives overlook more “pragmatic” cognitive strategies that aging adults use to compensate for declines in speed and adaptability to maintain their performance, as well as their increasing bank of knowledge and experiences (Schaie 2005; Li, et al. 2004; Baltes 1987).
Theorized and popularized by Horn and Cattell (e.g. 1967) as “crystallized intelligence,” these experience-based capacities include knowledge, skills and strategies that are acquired through socio-cultural environments like educational institutions, workplace settings and homes. Crystallized abilities include access to an expanding vocabulary and general knowledge base, as well as a deepening and more nuanced understanding of particular subject areas, as they relate to the life experiences of each individual (Berger 2014:609). Crystallized intelligence is believed to have the potential to increase with age, so long as the fluid processing capacities allow for access to this experience bank, and given that the individual makes these metaphorical deposits. Whether or not accumulated intelligence is considered a form of wisdom is culturally relative and not necessarily age-dependent (Staudinger & Gluck). Nonetheless, crystallized abilities assure that people of older ages can draw on an expanded collection of life experiences in their reflections and analyses in ways that may escape young minds, regardless of the latter’s hard-wired rapid adaptability (Ardelt 2000). As revealed through the insightful and entertaining anecdotes shared by the UPDHI participant quoted above, crystallized intelligence can be modeled through storytelling, which can provide younger generations with unique opportunities for cultural learning and exchange, if the latter choose to listen.
The rapid cognitive adaptability of the UPDHI’s youth participants, by contrast, has allowed them to complement elders in the UPDHI, demystifying the video production process by manipulating the recording equipment and editing software that seemed so daunting to the elder participants prior to participation. Instead of feeling intimidated by the fluidity of the technologies and dissemination platforms, I have observed that they are themselves integral to and driving project innovations in real time. Moreover, differing generational perspectives promote participant questions and dialogues that challenge individuals’ assumptions – from old to young and young to old. In other words, I claim that intergenerational programs like the UPDHI are a “win-win” – but not solely on the grounds of their cost effectiveness or mutual charitable or therapeutic potential. Rather, the UPDHI promotes pairings on a more equal footing, socially and cognitively, where each partner contributes her own strengths toward the creation of a unique cultural product – which is itself the fruit of and in service to intergenerational exchange and esteem.
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Sara Thiam is currently finishing up an MPH degree at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and she is serving as a lecturer in the Social Sciences department of Michigan Technological University. Her 2015 anthropology dissertation from her time at McGill University is called, Forced Begging, Aid and Children’s Rights in Senegal: Stories of Suffering and Politics of Compassion in the Promotion of Rights for the “Taalibe” Qur’anic School Students of Senegal and Mali. Sara is carrying out the Upper Peninsula Digital History Initiative as board chair of Right Start UP, the non-profit organization that she co-founded in Hancock, Michigan, in 2015. The UPDHI was recently awarded a $25,000 grant from the Michigan Humanities Council to enable intergenerational pairs to document the unique heritage of the people of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.