Elderly Tell Life Stories. Just Ask.

VERA PARIS, an 88-year-old artist who grew up in England, Germany and America, had a story about husbands. ‘’My first one introduced me to my second one,” she said. After a pause that held more than a hint of mischief, she added, ”But that’s a story for another day.”

Mrs. Paris, stares ahead as she speaks. She is legally blind and can see only peripherally. Sitting around the kitchen table were five fellow residents, knuckles gnarled with arthritis, some trembling with palsy. They told stories that spanned the globe and the last century.

The six live at Meadowview, an assisted-living residence, which is at the Wartburg Adult Care Community. Since February, about two-thirds of Meadowview’s 80 residents have participated in a biography program, which takes place once a month. Residents are encouraged to explore and review their lives by telling their stories to other residents, while they sit around a table in a kitchen that overlooks a courtyard. Martha-Jane Dunphy, a social work case manager, serves as the group’s moderator and scribe, drawing residents out when needed, pointing out common threads among their separate stories, and, while writing it all down, telling them all they should write books.

Raffaela Mazzia, 87, was sitting next to her ”baby brother,” Joe Cirigliano, who is 84. They spoke of a life long ago on 116th Street and Pleasant Avenue in Manhattan, when stick ball and box ball were the diversions of the day and the sister and brother lived with two other siblings and their parents.

They laughed when they told the story of how, 70 years ago, they used to tease their mother about how she was born on the ship coming to America, and if she had only waited a little while she wouldn’t have had to worry about becoming a citizen. The teasing, Mrs. Mazzio and Mr.Cirigliano said, smiling, would always make their mother
throw her head back and laugh.

Mr. Cirigliano went into the army for four years during World War II and fought on D-Day, which he spoke of humbly. ‘’I remember crossing the English Channel,” he said, ”and then running into a lot of trouble. Some people I was with, they never reached France. But me — from France, I went to Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. Every time I began to learn the language, they’d move me. The Army was like a vaudeville show.”

Kay Caruso, 85, a teacher for 34 years, lived in Darien, Conn., and had a husband in the Army, also for four years. During that time the menu at home was limited: ”For supper, there was fried potatoes, scalloped potatoes and mashed potatoes,” she said. Right before her husband came home, she miraculously found lamb on the supermarket shelves; it hadn’t been available for years. She cooked it for her husband his first night back. ”And he looked at it and said all he had in the army was lamb,” Mrs. Caruso said, smiling at how the two of them couldn’t stop laughing.

Carl Solberg, 87, was a journalist, in a career that included 30 years at Time magazine. He spoke about the very first story he ever wrote, almost 70 years ago, at a county newspaper in the Midwest. ‘’There was a family in town who had a son and he was a little eccentric — maybe more so,” he said. ”He took an ax and chopped his father’s head off, then he tried for his mother, but it was only a glancing blow. Can you imagine a better first story than that?”

Mrs. Mazzia, who worked as a secretary before she was married, had her own workplace memories. ‘’In those days,” she said, ”the bosses would get fresh with you. I’d have to tell them right off, no way.” In addition to their own work, the residents spoke of loved ones whose deeds, even decades later, filled them with pride. ‘’Our father was an immigrant from Italy and started as a stock boy in a shoe store,” said Mr. Cirigliano. ”For years, he went to school at night to learn to speak English like he was born here. He learned to speak beautifully. And he eventually managed that store.” Milly Duncan, 92, who, like her husband, grew up in New York City, smiled broadly when she spoke of how he went on to be an owner of the Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce Company.

Mrs. Dunphy said that an important function of the program was for each person to tell his or her story and, in the process, realize how distinct and important their lives were. Such discourse also helps residents take note of the struggles and accomplishments of others, in the hope that they will become friends. In an assisted-living setting, said Mrs. Dunphy, new friendships take effort. Mrs. Dunphy said that she was always struck by the way in which Meadowview’s residents told their stories with such a humorous flair.  ‘Their sense of humor got them through a lot of difficult times,” she said. She is always surprised at the scope and content of the stories she hears. ‘’We had a 103-year-old resident who would tell the story about how she had three husbands, all of whom had known each other,” said Mrs. Dunphy. ”She had married two of them while they were on their deathbeds, but after the weddings, both had rallied and hung in there for two or three more years. She loved that story.’’ After living a full, adventurous, and even at times ordinary to mundane life, the elderly may have the desire to share his or her autobiographical reflections on life and the unique journey of living through the decades.

An elderly person may enjoy telling their life stories. Just ask. However, some may not. And that’s ok too.

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