Photo: Shutterstock.

What distinguishes us as humans isn’t just brain size or our ability to invent things like the wheel or the iPhone. It’s also our urge to tell stories. Storytelling of one kind or another is how we view and share the world with each other.

Increasingly, it’s seen as a way of improving the lives of older adults, whether by helping to fight disease such as dementia, or via psychological benefits including things like improved self-esteem. The study of “narrative gerontology,” where older people share life stories with those of a younger generation, suggests storytelling’s positives may even include an enhanced sense of the meaning of life.

Music connects with people in a different way than words. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Ian Britton.

Now, a partnership between the Alberta Music Education Foundation (AMEF) and United Active Living Communities in Calgary, takes the idea of storytelling a step further by adding music. Specifically, by asking participants to come up with a piece of music that was (or is, in the case of the high school students involved) important to them in younger years. Music, in 2018’s inaugural edition of the project, proved to be a unique way into a life story  – and a successful one, too. It will continue January 2019.

“Music adds a layer and a connection that words often can’t do alone,” says Jill LaForty, United Active Living’s music director. “There’s something about music that takes you back, especially from teenage years. Music connects people to a time, a place, or an event.”

“Music adds a layer and a connection that words often can’t do alone.”

The Alberta Heritage Music Project grew out of a similar, earlier AMEF initiative where younger people interviewed their elders about their musical memories, and then shared those stories through performance. But the new version of the project has some distinct differences.

“We wanted a more collaborative approach,” says LaForty. “Rather than the resident telling the story and handing it over to the younger interviewer, the older people were also involved in telling the younger person’s story.”

The project involved five students from Bishop Carroll High School paired with five residents of the United communities, all of whom participated in a series of workshops facilitated by musician and teacher Samantha Whelan Kotkas. She was particularly interested in exploring the collaborative intergenerational approach.

Older people form relationships with young performers through their music and storytelling. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Doug Oines.

“We see the world differently at the various stages in our lives. It’s really important to share our perspectives and make relationships with people who have viewpoints that differ from our own and can help us to understand our lives,” says Whelan Kotkas.

She sees the benefits as multiple, and as flowing in both directions: “The older people are revitalized by the energy of the young people and their interest in their stories. The younger people are inspired by the life stories of the older people and feel seen and heard when they’re sharing their stories.”

The project culminated in performances at United’s two communities, with acts ranging from short plays to monologues, all threaded together by music. Whelan Kotkas believes that performing the works for an audience gave the project more value to participants.

“We all have something to say and want to be heard. Performing the works allowed the older people and the younger people to have their stories witnessed by a larger community,” she says. “And some of the family members who attended were very touched by the stories their family member told.”

LaForty views the performances as “a kind of community building,” noting that some audience members learned things about fellow residents that they hadn’t known before, such as a person’s musical skills or a compelling life story. She says that the success of the inaugural program has also led to plans for a “part two” in 2019 and looks forward to the next workshopping process.

“It really is amazing to watch younger people with older, the years don’t mean anything,” she says. “The huge gap isn’t a gap. We’re all just people. You make yourself vulnerable sharing a story or a piece of music that’s important to you, and the people in the program just meet as fellow travellers on this planet. It’s such a beautiful thing to see.”