I have had a difficult lesson of late: 'Lifestory work is just not for everyone' however much I wish it was.
I find myself getting tied up in knots at times, trying to give everyone opportunities to have this kind of experience - we see the great results that can be achieved for the participants, their carers, families and friends and want that for others. But giving real choice means enabling people to come and go in sessions as they choose and listening to people who say they just aren't interested.
I spoke to Linda from Oldham Life Story Network about our projects, She was helpful in her straightforwardness. She said 'Lifestory work is not for everyone, it's to support the person, and to put out what they want to share.' In other words, it's centred around personal choice.
We've had people drop out of session before, when the act of remembering has just been too painful for them - due to the content of the memory, or the frustrations of the fight for that memory (due to dementia, or other health conditions) or other barriers. But what if someone is unsure, or their capacity for decision-making is shaky?
There are tricky judgements to be made sometimes, and none of us are infallible. In a recent session, a member of staff encouraged a participant in our group to stay, even when she was clearly agitated and wanted to leave. Often in these situations, we'll step in and suggest that the person leave. However, we also have to respect the insight and judgement of staff too. It's a balancing act, the staff usually know the participant much better than we do, and therefore should know how far to push - but such moments leave me feeling uncomfortable. We also have to look at the happiness of the whole group, when one person feels agitated, it can easily spread to others.
We have worked with people with difficult histories before - reminiscing with holocaust survivors and former refugees was challenging at the time. Recently we have been working with a women, who over the course of our encounters, revealed a very disturbing past, with memories of beatings for her and her mother from her father, and hints at abuse from her husband and former boss. She seemed to find it cathartic to talk about these issues in the group - an unburdening - but she couldn't stop herself coming back to the subject, whatever else we were talking about. This impacted on the whole group. I believe that the issues raised for her personally were so serious that they needed individual attention. We have discussed this with the staff, and don't feel it appropriate to work further with her - and will be referring her for receive professional support.
Life story work, is fundamentally there to support the person, and to put out what they want to share. Every project and everyone we work with, we learn more. They're not all easy lessons.