Paroles d’aînés: Using life stories as a tool for social inclusion

The isolation and even exclusion from society that seniors experience, coupled with our lack of appreciation of their life paths and failure to transmit their precious knowledge and skills, threatens our collective heritage.

Paroles d’aînés—The Words of Our Eldersproject, led by Sandrine Gueymard, a winner of the fall 2020 cohort of the Civic Incubator, aims to give seniors a voice, to contribute to their sense of fulfillment, and to help them age well by collecting and sharing their life experiences.

A personal experience leading to social innovation

The Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey said, “A people ignorant of their history is like a tree without roots.“ When life experience isn’t transmitted to a new generation, only the broad strokes of historical events come through to us, without the depth that personal testimony can provide. In the context of immigration in particular, a failure to pass down knowledge is exacerbated by a geographical rupture that only accentuates the sense of generational loss.

This, in part, is how Sandrine has experienced her own family history. When she returned to Montreal, following in her grandparents’ footsteps and seeking stories about their lives, she came to understand the importance of intergenerational transmission to the preservation of family heritage.

Credit: Youssef Shoufan

A few years earlier, during a field survey she conducted as part of her doctoral thesis in urban planning, she had been fortuitously introduced to the community of the elderly. In conversations with these seniors about their feelings and their perceptions of their living environment, it became clear to her that they were in search of social interaction, and appreciated this moment focusing on them. They felt a great need to listen, and were also eager to share their personal stories with an attentive audience. Based on these contacts with the elderly, Sandrine began to assemble the bricks of a future life-story collection project.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a trigger for this initiative: The news media showed us that the social model failed in its duty to include and care for the elderly, and this pushed Sandrine to act. As a Little Brothers volunteer, she made friendship calls to isolated seniors to help them maintain social ties. When she saw the call for projects from the MIS Civic Incubator, she was motivated to pursue an uplifting social-impact project, one that was close to her heart, with life stories at its centre.

When Sandrine joined the Civic Incubator, Paroles d’aînés project was only an idea. She explains:

Sandrine Gueymard, projet Paroles d'aînés, lauréat de la cohorte de l'automne 2020 de l'Incubateur civique de la MIS

“Even though this project has a long history, I hadn’t arrived at a concrete solution yet. But I had been wanting to create my own project for some time, and the Civic Incubator program gave me the desire to do that. I imagined a cohort of staffers who would be trained and whom I’d collaborate with, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

— Sandrine

Countering ageism and promoting better representation

Through research into ageism, conversations with health care personnel struggling with the limitations involved in elder care, and numerous contacts with seniors, Sandrine identified several key issues. Firstly, the elderly often face isolation. As frequent victims of exclusion, they are more vulnerable to both loneliness and the rupture of social connections. This situation can be explained by the predominantly negative representations of old age in Western society.

We should also note that it’s not only younger generations that lack appreciation for seniors’ life experiences: It’s also seniors themselves. In fact, since self-image is partly constructed through the eyes of others, a vicious circle can form in which seniors internalize society’s devaluing of them. This undermines their confidence and silences them. The result is a breakdown in the transmission of knowledge.

Widespread ageism represents a threat to our collective heritage, to the well-being of an aging generation, and to the betterment of our lives together.

“How can we change this behaviour?”

Paroles d’aînés project proposes to give a voice to the elderly—to revitalize their sense of agency and their power of self-expression—by collecting and sharing their experiences. When we value their stories, seniors themselves are invigorated. They regain confidence in themselves and in the richness of what they can contribute to society. They are able to dispel prejudices about old age, transform cultural norms, increase empathy, and participate in reducing socio-economic inequalities. This creates a new and mutually enriching relationship across generations. In this way, the story of a life becomes a tool for social inclusion and support for aging well.

Imagining solutions with maximum impact

“Collecting stories is the central point of the project, but I was uncertain about what form and medium to use. I have a strong attraction to the human voice, with its intonation, laughter, and warmth—its intimacy. A recording of a voice is precious; I wanted audio to be part of the experience. But I had difficulty imagining the framework in which I would collect and share stories. In my mind, it remained a blur.“

— Sandrine

As Sandrine’s journey through the Civic Incubator progressed, answers came into focus, such as the importance of distinguishing between various types of stories and their significance—which will differ according to the audience—in order to find the ideal fit between storyteller and listener. For Paroles d’aînés, she identified two components:

  1. Family transmission: The collecting of anecdotes and important life moments in a private context, at the request of seniors or their loved ones, in order to share a history with future generations via written accounts, sound recordings, or photo albums.
  2. Intergenerational transmission: The sharing of life experiences beyond the family in a collective-memory exercise intended to reach a wider public through exhibitions or documentaries.

Each part of the project has its own prototypes, strategies for solicitation and communication, and stages of implementation. The initial focus will be on transmission within families, which is more easily accomplished and generates income:

“The objective is to start creating content in a private context. This will allow me to experiment with story collection, to test distribution formats, and to create a proof of concept before working on a larger scale and approaching potential partners.

Thanks to the insights I gathered during the Civic Incubator, I have overcome obstacles and gained confidence in myself. My project has more focus and substance, and it’s now guided by a road map. I know where I’m going, and I can call myself a social-innovation project leader with unparalleled motivation!“

— Sandrine

Three alumni of the program look back

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The potential realization of a positive-impact project idea—one that has long been brewing in the back of their minds—has motivated over one hundred change-makers to join the MIS Civic Incubator.

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