I never had the classic tale of my grandparents telling me stories as a child. Frankly, I don’t have a lot of stories with my grandparents in the first place — a big factor that pushed me towards gerontology.
Nevertheless, while I cannot sit around the fireplace or at the dinner table and hear stories of what life was like way back when I find the countless photo albums and rabbit holes on the internet to be an interesting substitute of those experiences that I wish I could have had. But on the other end of the spectra, I know that my grandparents also wanted to share those experiences with me, but language barriers and time differences hindered our chances of truly piecing together the present and the past. The innovations of facetime and varying calling apps were, unfortunately, a bit too late for my Lola and Lolo, but I’d imagine we would have spent more time together as I got older.
As we look at the tech sector nowadays, we’re seeing yet another shift in communication, specifically in this notion of oral tradition.
While storytelling is a gift and tool as old as time, the means and manifestations of those stories have changed dramatically in the past few years. We’re not talking about drawings on the walls or long, powerful speeches but just a few seconds and a finger swipe on a piece of plastic.
From those long-lasting traditions of storytelling at the fireplace or the dinner table, today we all know that busyness and time constraint in our daily lives has hindered this process. Often, just as I once did, we resort to using social media or consuming other forms of storytelling in substitute to the stories of those older people in our lives. And that’s completely understandable, the ease of access when it comes to a phone or television screen makes those forms of media much more valuable in our eyes compared to listening to a story being told to us by an older person. This technological shift, in many ways, has transformed storytelling onto another leg, beyond the face-to-face interactions that many attribute to older generations.
The YouTube space has provided plenty of opportunities for uploaded videos or podcasts, with scattered opportunities for funding depending on exposure and viewership. But a Twitter message or an Instagram picture, which all are common messaging pathways now, limit the number of characters used and require the inclusion of an image, respectively. These obstacles, while they certainly may seem mundane to the savvy digital native, may pose some significant challenges for older individuals.
Only so much information can be distributed at a single time, and as people constantly on the move, we may often think twice about reading a long message or watching an hour-long video about someone’s life.
It's equally important to recognize that we are playing against an algorithm, one that knows our interests and relegates us into an echo chamber of similar ideas and beliefs. The stories that many, including older adults, have to share may fall to the wayside as we venture down rabbit holes established to funnel our thoughts one way or another.
This constant struggle may just be what we need to — for lack of a better term — ‘regress’ back towards traditional storytelling. While I definitely missed out on hearing from my grandparents about what happened back in their day, I am simply glued to the stories that I hear during community service ventures in-person and on the phone; there’s simply something so genuine and powerful about illustrating a story as heard straight from the source. At some point, people need to slow down and smell the roses, catch a breath of fresh air. It’s hard though to even do that sometimes, but we either get time and an opportunity to listen or burn out into a ball of fire and ash.
I encourage you to find ways to connect with older people especially in the age of the pandemic.
But if you’re not into that, these innovations in technology have also given older adults the opportunity to also hear and digest previous stories as well beyond simply documenting them. From virtual reality initiatives across the globe to national archives or digital story mapping, there are a whole plethora of opportunities for our older age cohorts to continue passing on their stories with us — even if we may not be there to listen in person.
As we recognize these changes in our storytelling, it is equally important to note that the themes that we share never change. Stories of hope and the determination to thrive against the odds are timeless ideas that we share from generation to generation. My generation, being the digital natives of the early 2000s, have already started sharing their stories in short tidbits here and there all throughout the internet; this being only one of millions of examples. However, there’s an opportunity for older adults to interact in that sphere and help cultivate an intergenerational conversation. Even for the sake of just having a small story out there, someone at some time will stumble upon it and learn something new, that’s sort of the beauty of the internet.
If there were ever a time to record our experiences either for ourselves or others, it must be now.
We find ourselves in new and interesting times, now more than ever with a pandemic hopefully subsiding and a new future awaiting in a few months’ time.
—About the Author
Lois Angelo is an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California studying Human Development and Aging. His articles have been published by the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, and his biweekly column "Back in My Day" is one of the first gerontology-related columns run by the University's publication, the Daily Trojan. With a focus on intergenerational connections and how members of the youth can combat ageism from the ground up, Lois hopes to explore his passions for gerontology and older adults in his pursuit of medical school.