Early in November of 2019, I started to work on a Meema Story about science. I was looking for engaging stories about physics, earth science, chemistry, biology, ecology: whatever might stimulate reminiscence and conversation related to science experiences for companions in the context of caregiving. I decided to try a story on the life cycle of a frog.
It was harder than I thought it would be, of course. Midway I had a crisis — a complete loss of confidence — when I confessed to several friends and my father-in-law what I was doing. “Really?” they asked, concerned that nobody was really going to want to watch the life cycle of a frog, let alone talk about it.
“Yes,” I replied weakly, wondering if they were right. Would anybody care?
But I persevered. Really. And I’m glad I did. We still aren’t sure this will work for lots of other care companions, but it was great for me, my father and his wife, Lee Anne.
THE STORY OF THE FROG STORY
By mid-November, just before Thanksgiving, we were able to try it out. We followed the basic Meema protocol, modified slightly to accommodate the long-distance connection between us:
We set aside time for the Meema activity.
My father, Ralph, and his wife, Lee Anne, sat down together in their kitchen in St. Louis. They were going to use their TV to access Meema Stories.
I called them from Boston on the telephone. We also used two laptop computers and Zoom to host a video conference so we could see each other and record the experience.
Our goal was to talk with each other about science but none of us knew what was actually going to happen. Before we started, I explained the objective again to Ralph and Lee Anne: Meema Stories were going to help inspire more meaningful conversations between us. I reminded them that I had a simple story on the life cycle of a frog that would just get us started.
The story itself is very simple: it covers the basics. Frogs lay their eggs in water where they are fertilized and develop into embryos. Next, when embryos hatch they become free-swimming and are called tadpoles. Then tadpoles develop legs and lungs and become froglets. Finally, froglets move onto land, lose their tails and complete their life cycle.
Simple. But if you actually think about it, totally amazing. And that’s kind of the point.
In this clip I begin coaching Lee Anne so she can use speech to fetch the right story. Notice how Meema narrates the story while then they watch it together.
Did you notice how Ralph and Lee Anne interacted with the story? As a caregiver, you start to develop intuition for when and how others will react. I was so pleased but not really surprised that the picture of the tree frog at the end made them laugh and relax.
And then, see how they nod when Meema invites them to converse with a list of possible topics. “What would you like to talk about?” Meema asks. Lee Anne stepped right up and volunteered her own story about biology in school.
LEE ANNE’S STORY
If you watch closely, you’ll see expressions of disgust on both of their faces as Lee Anne describes the dissection of the cute little froggy. It’s a powerful and visceral emotion, still pretty potent after many years. I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that many older adults will have such memories precisely because of these powerful emotions. That’s also what made them good teaching tools in the first place.
Notice how Lee Anne’s memory stimulated Ralphs and he considers, just for a moment, why he chose his career in Botany as opposed to Zooology. When one person remembers and narrates a personal, emotional story, it can affect others in the group too: it stimulates more reflection, reminiscence and conversation.
After Lee Anne finished telling us her story, the conversation started to wander. We argued a bit about whether rabbits are cute or not. We considered several of the items on the list of thing Meema suggested we might want to talk about. But it wasn’t obvious what to talk about next.
I took a different approach with my own story.
The most important thing I could have done here was to support Lee Anne with a story of my own, any story that would interest Dad. I wanted to share something we both knew, some knowledge of biology and perhaps some personal feelings about the life cycle story. But I decided to connect with another, different emotion: wonder.
Well, as you can probably tell, it was a sincere expression of wonder on my part; it is amazing. Unfortunately it did not work right away, however.
Initially, Dad didn’t react. He rambled a bit. But then, after a few minutes we hit gold — pure gold — and Dad remembered and told us a story we had never heard before.
Perhaps it was something I said about how indigenous peoples had figured out even complicated life cycles like this one using traditional, pre-scientific methods of observations and description instead of molecular biology. Perhaps it was Lee Anne reminiscing about high school. Or perhaps it was Dad thinking about the miracle of development after all, and how that feeling of wonder motivated him too. I don’t know. But something made him think of Grandma, his mother, her African Violets, and the source of his interest in science…
It may not be obvious why we all thought that initial paper Dad published as an undergrad was so funny, or why he wanted to keep it a “secret.” Did I mention that Dad was the Editor of The Plant Cell for many years? It’s the journal of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) and is read by many scientists all over the world. The magazine of the African Violet Society where he published his undergraduate work on African Violets, on the other hand, does not reach many scientists and therefore doesn’t have the same prestige in academia. And yet Dad and his ASPB colleagues would probably agree, the African Violet Journal (or Magazine as it is now called) serves amateur horticulturists, gardeners and plant lovers in much larger numbers than The Plant Cell. And it may have even been read by my Grandmother and her peers. Pretty amusing.
I’d appreciate it if you help Ralph keep his little secret, though.
So what did we learn?
Big things like a career in science can start pretty small with a basic question about your mother’s African Violets. And a simple story about the life cycle of a frog can unlock the whole thing. You just don’t know where a conversation can lead until you start it. You just have to sit down, be willing to share something of yourself, and be patient.
I’ve heard this criticism from some of our followers loud and clear: “Sure, Steve, YOU can do this with your father. YOU knew just what to say to him. I would never know just how to get him to talk like that.”
Well, I’d like to answer that in this way: “OF COURSE you wouldn’t know what to say to MY father; but I think you WILL figure out what to say with YOUR spouse or parent.” I can pretty confidently assert that NOBODY ELSE will have a personal conversation just like this one based on the frog story. Everyone’s response — their personal stories — will all be different.
I’ve also heard this concern from caregivers: “Well, that’s easy for YOU. I can’t do that in my caregiving practice. I don’t even know how to introduce the activity and get it started. It feels awkward.”
Well I understand that too. What you can’t see from the video is that I’ve been working at it for some time now. I had to learn how to frame the activity and how to set up the story, for example. Although that part is getting easier, having patience and listening are still particularly difficult for me. I’m still learning myself. And furthermore, although it’s probably not apparent from the video, I still get a little nervous when I’m using a new story or a working with a new person for the first time.
It turns out that practice is really the key, though. I’ve done it enough and talked to enough caregivers to believe that every one of these obstacles can be overcome with the right resources AND care companions who have a genuine desire to engage.
I have also have a stand-alone video the same conversation. Contact me and I can share it with you.