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Librarian in Residence: Aging and the power of narrative

By Jessica Green on May 1, 2015

Jessica Green is a book addict and library card holder since the age of 3. She’s a librarian at the Ottawa Public Library and currently the Apartment613 Librarian-in-Residence, sharing a compendium of literary thoughts and tips.

One of my colleagues here at Apt613 suggested I listen to this podcast of a CBC Ideas program all about “Aging by the Book”. It’s a very interesting listen as it discusses the power of narrative, the importance of sharing stories, and the difficulties that come with aging. One of the things that struck me the most was the examination of the shared fear – the loss of self due to dementia. I found it fascinating that even those who were in the throes of dementia were able to better relate when they were asked about their stories. And it is an excellent reminder that one of the most powerful things we value in modern society is narrative.

Think of any book, movie or TV show that you love and why it is that the story resonated with you. Narratives are what drive those bits of media which then we all share with each other continually. This sharing of stories, as mentioned in the podcast when one of the researchers shared a book with his father, leads to further shared experiences and builds connections.

Other studies have shown the importance of fiction reading for children in that it makes them more empathetic. From this article, According to Mar, “social outcomes that could come out of being exposed to narrative fiction can include exposure to social content, reflecting on past social interactions, or imagining future interactions. We may gain insight into things that have happened in the past that relate to a character in a story, and resonate with our experiences.” So not only does reading fiction help with building language skills, but it can help children build a better sense of self and relate better to others.

So what can we take away from this: narrative may be even more important than just that thing that drives a story. It could very well be the central element to our lives. And although many of us, myself included, fear the loss of that central narrative, as in cases of dementia, perhaps being able to create and share our stories will help us age with grace and grit.

Here are some books for all ages about aging:

Gene Everlasting by Gene Lodgson

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Losing It: In Which An Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain by William Ian Miller

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

How It All Began by Penelope Lively (referred to in the program)