UCF English student Alice Spicer hopes one day there will be a new literary genre for the storytellers that inspire her: people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia conditions.
The University of Central Florida senior meets regularly with Henry, Barbara, Christine and others at an Oviedo nursing home to meticulously transcribe their oral stories of emotion and adventure. Sometimes their yarns are light and lively, such as the Hula-Hooping woman who buys her clothes at a circus, but sometimes the stories bring Spicer to tears, such as the woman who told of letting go and dying by climbing onto bubbles and floating away.
“This segment of society often is locked behind doors, but there’s no reason they can’t have opportunities to make a difference in the world,” said Spicer, who is working on a creative-writing major with a minor in digital media. “They have a totally different way of seeing the world, which I think would appeal to the general public. We’re so organized in our lives in a predictive way, this would touch our brains in a way we don’t normally do.”
The story collection was started three years ago as a student service-learning project by Terry Thaxton, an associate professor of English whose Literary Arts Partnership at UCF takes classroom concepts into the community to benefit others. Spicer, a student in one of Thaxton’s classes last year, became so interested in working with people with mid- to late-stage dementia conditions that Thaxton turned the project over to her.
“She’s using creativity as a way to capture their imaginations,” Thaxton said. “We’re not focused on forcing them to remember things, but rather allowing their memories to become part of who they are at present. We’re interested in celebrating who they are.”
Each week, Spicer takes a photo to Emeritus Care in Oviedo, where usually six to 10 residents in a group are given the opportunity to tell a story about what they see in the picture. The photo could be a pensive woman sitting at a table, a colorful apartment building, kids playing a game, or a mannequin head.
Spicer said she asks questions about the photos, but she never knows where the stories are headed in the next 30 to 60 minutes.
“They’re being original, there’s not an internal sensor. A lot of times we have to tell them they’re not lying just because they’re making it up,” she said. “This relieves the stress of accessing memory, which they have increasing difficulty to do.”
Nearly 100 collected stories have been posted on the project’s website, http://writingfancy.blogspot.com/. The stories are not permitted to be used for commercial ventures and the project also is not intended to hold up the residents to undue exposure, Spicer said, but rather to provide them a way to connect.
Many residents with dementia often spend their days sitting by themselves, staring at television or sleeping. “Even at our workshop they may not remember their name or career or families, but in that moment they are a storyteller and that is their identity. They embrace it and they love it,” Spicer said.
Denise LaSota, executive director at Emeritus, said she enjoys reading all of the residents’ stories and has noticed that the contributors exhibit a brief emotional lift after the sessions.
“They like the opportunity of reliving some of the things they’re talking about,” she said. “They like the opportunity to share.”
Some of the residents’ families also are moved by the stories they read afterward, and often are able to identify which sentence or phrase their loved one contributed.
This leads Spicer to surmise that writing projects like this may someday lead researchers to uncover some sort of “emotional memory.”
“There’s some kind of retention there that we just can’t put a finger on,” she said.
Thaxton said the story collectors draw some conclusions in terms of creativity and imagination, but don’t analyze the psychological aspects of the stories. The ultimate goal of the project, she said, is to allow the storytellers to feel validation rather than pressure to remember.
“We meet our storytellers where they are, not where they have been.”
To read about “Mrs. Butler’s Adventure into Animal World,” “Music is the Best Medicine,” “A Cat and a Fish,” “Dizzy, Dizzy, Dizzy,” and dozens of other stories collected through the Literary Arts Partnership, go to http://writingfancy.blogspot.com/.