Workshops help residents tell life stories
There’s power in telling your story. Last fall, at Brooke Grove Retirement Village in Sandy Spring, Maryland, a group of residents listened to each other’s life stories at an event led by a speaker from the nonprofit Story Tapestries.
“People loved the opportunity to share their voice as well as listen,” said Arianna Ross, founder and CEO of Story Tapestries Inc., based in Poolesville, Maryland.
“Our seniors are brilliant, amazing individuals with incredible stories,” Ross said. “They love the opportunity to listen to stories, listen to music and then have a chance to talk about it afterwards.”
After one storytelling performance and discussion, for instance, an older participant named Evelyn Robinson said, “You have encouraged me to share my story with someone.” One woman said the workshop “brought a tear to my eye.”
A dream that grew
Marylander Ross “grew up going to senior centers,” she said, attending performances with her mother, a pianist.
After graduating from Northwestern University, Ross began a career as an actor and director. After a few years in India, she returned home and worked at Children’s Hospital, where she performed in informal settings. She also hosted programs at a Bethesda synagogue for early Alzheimer’s patients.
“My mom always said it’s important that we take care of those who came before us,” Ross said.
Ross officially established Story Tapestries in 2010, securing grants from state and local governments, and operating with a budget of $10,000 that has grown to $1 million today. The group has reached more than a million people.
Story Tapestries travels to schools, libraries and senior communities. All its programs are free because Story Tapestries is supported by grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and individual and corporate donors.
The nonprofit also hosts programs for seniors and families in collaboration with the library systems of Baltimore City and County.
How the program works
At a typical workshop, a Story Tapestries “teaching artist” first gives a lively performance, demonstrating the art of telling a tale with a beginning, middle and end.
Then they teach the audience how to draft and perform their own personal narratives in front of their peers. The idea is to help older adults feel more confident and connected.
The nonprofit also offers a class to teach older adults how to share photos on their smartphones or iPads. “Seniors want to be able to use digital tools to communicate with the outside world,” Ross said.
“We’ve shown them how to create albums, share their album with someone with a little music — and communicate their story through a digital medium.”
During the pandemic, Story Tapestries began hosting more Zoom “story hours,” a low-tech way for older adults to share their life stories. The program was sponsored by the Maryland Department of Aging. Ross personally gave tech support to a 104-year-old woman, enabling her to share her story with others.
As society reopened, Ross’ group also brought storytelling workshops, musical performances, poetry classes and art classes to several senior communities in Maryland, including Brooke Grove, Cadence Senior Living, Wilshire Estates, the Village at Rockville, and Seabury at Friendship Terrace in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit hopes to expand its programs to the Baltimore area this year.
Memory care programs
Although most of Story Tapestries’ programs are for schoolchildren or healthy older adults, it also offers programs for early Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. A facilitator like Ross does a performance, then leads a workshop with photographs designed to jog memories.
After one such workshop, Ross recalled, she received the “best compliments ever in my career.” People rushed to thank her and say, “It has been years since my mother or father remembered that.” That moment, she said, “really triggered my love for working with seniors.”
Every Story Tapestries session is different, depending on the audience — schoolchildren, older adults or memory care patients. But all of the workshops make an impact.
“We had multiple people say to us, ‘This is the first time in several years that I felt like someone other than a nurse actually wanted to hear what I had to say,’” Ross said. “That’s why these programs are critically important.”
For more information about Story Tapestries’ free programs, visit storytapestries.org or call (301) 916-6328.