Alise’s small stories: indices of identity construction and of resistance to the discourse of cognitive impairment

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In this paper, we discuss two types of discourse: the first one—the discourse of cognitive impairment of a long-term care facility (LTCF) reflected in the institution’s language policy and in the language use of several caregivers of the LTCF; and
  ORIGINAL PAPER Alise’s small stories: indices of identity constructionand of resistance to the discourse of cognitiveimpairment Iryna Lenchuk  • Merrill Swain Received: 26 April 2009/Accepted: 22 September 2009/Published online: 22 October 2009   Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009 Abstract  In this paper, we discuss two types of discourse: the first one—thediscourse of cognitive impairment of a long-term care facility (LTCF) reflected inthe institution’s language policy and in the language use of several caregivers of the LTCF; and the second one, the discourse of ‘small’ stories (Bamberg andGeorgakopoulou 2008) told by Alise, a resident of the LTCF. We investigate howthe participant of the study, Alise, an older adult suffering from multiple sclerosisand experiencing memory loss, positioned herself depending on which discoursewas being used, and through a series of small stories indexed her re-emergingidentity as a capable communicator. By approaching narrative as a type of socialpractice rather than a text and expanding it with sociocultural views on language, weanalyze selected excerpts between the researcher and the participant across 12 datacollection sessions in order to demonstrate how the participant’s changes in identity(and memory) were reflected in and facilitated by Alise’s small stories. In addition,we investigate why the series of small stories told by Alise facilitated her fullengagement, in contrast to the discourse of cognitive impairment imposed upon herby the institution. We also demonstrate that Alise’s small stories, which were usedas a site for identity construction, helped this socially disengaged resident of theLTCF to reposition herself as an active, capable and valid participant in commu-nication, thus positively affecting her sense of self-esteem and well-being. Finally,we emphasize the implications of our research for the professionals, volunteers and The second author is the Principal Investigator of the research project for which the data were collected.Throughout this paper, Merrill is referred to as the researcher. The first author analyzed the data from theperspective of small stories for her M.A. thesis (Lenchuk  2009).I. Lenchuk Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics, York Univeristy, Toronto, ON, CanadaM. Swain ( & )Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canadae-mail: mswain@oise.utoronto.ca  1 3 Lang Policy (2010) 9:9–28DOI 10.1007/s10993-009-9149-4  family members involved in caring for older people with dementia. Specifically, weemphasize the importance of recognizing a ‘small story’ in particular, and langu-aging in general, as a mediator of positive change. This recognition, in our view, isessential in making meaningful the lives of people experiencing memory loss and inimproving their quality of life. Keywords  Small stories    Alise    Social engagement    Identity construction   LanguagingWhy have you been so silent all these months? … Why didn’t you tell us whatwas wrong?  …  Because no one asked me  …  (Shields 2002, p. 316, italicsadded) Introduction The goal of this paper is to demonstrate how a series of ‘small stories’ narrated byAlise, who was affected by memory loss and who was a resident of a long-term carefacility (LTCF), facilitated her active engagement in meaningful interactions andindexed her re-emerging identity as a capable individual. This series of small storiesalso served to counter the discourse of impairment, which was demonstrated in thelanguage use of several caretakers of Magnolia Place (MP, a pseudonym), theLTCF. We present our case in the following manner: (1) by providing a theoreticalrationale for the study which entails a particular view of storytelling; (2) byproviding a description of the practices and polices of the LTCF related to language,and how these practices positioned Alise as incompetent; (3) by providing excerptsof a series of small stories narrated by Alise that allowed her to create anddemonstrate her sense of self, and offered her the opportunity to resist the imageimposed on her by others of a confused and incompetent communicator. Theoretical rationale for the study: small stories We begin by providing a theoretical rationale of Alise’s small stories about RichardBurton. These small stories were constructed by her over a three-month period. Inour data analysis, we depart from the traditional understanding of narrative or ‘big’story with its canonical structure of abstract, orientation, complicating actions,evaluation, and coda (Labov 1972), the purpose of which is to represent narrator’spast experiences. Instead, we adopt a different approach to narrative or ‘small’ story(see e.g., Bamberg 2004; Bamberg and Georgakopoulou 2008) that includes the telling of on-going or known (shared) events 1 used by individuals as a type of social 1 A series of small stories about Richard Burton can be classified as an on-going and a shared event. Overa period of three-months, within which the study was conducted, both the participant and the researcherwere reading the biography of Richard Burton, were watching movies where he played a leading role, andwere listening to him reciting poetry.10 I. Lenchuk, M. Swain  1 3  practice in order to make sense of themselves and their lives, and most importantly‘‘to work up identity claims that are complex, reportable, and multifaceted’’(Bamberg 2004, p. 368).With this in mind, our research emphasis is not on how Alise  represented   a seriesof past events, i.e., Richard Burton’s life recorded over a three-month period, butrather on how Alise  positioned   herself while she narrated her small stories to theresearcher. In other words, our research focus is not on  a story  per se .  Rather, we areinterested in investigating how Alise’s small stories indexed her re-emerging socialidentity as a capable narrator in contrast to the larger discourse of the LTCF, whichpositioned her as cognitively impaired.From the point of view of a more traditional, ‘big’ story research approach, Alise’ssmall stories would be viewed as atypical and incomplete fragments that do notpossess the qualities of big ‘‘usually rhetorically developed narratives’’ (Ochs andCapps 2001, p. 57) with the clear structure mentioned above. Nevertheless, we arguethat through Alise’s telling of small stories to the researcher, she not only recoveredlost facts, but also created a positive image of herself that counteracted the discourseof the larger community. The traditional approach with its emphasis on ‘‘the narratedevent’’ (Sarangi 2008, p. 271) fails to account for stories, such as Alise’s, and tocapture  the process  of establishing Alise as an active participant in meaningful socialinteraction, which is facilitated by and reflected in the narrative event.Withinthisnewerparadigmforthestudyofnarrative,asmallstoryhasbeenstudiedasa  functionaland/orinteractionaltool thatisusedbypeople‘‘ineveryday,mundanesituations in order to create (and perpetuate) a sense of who they are’’ (Bamberg andGeorgakopoulou 2008, p. 379). Our approach towards a small story in particular, andlanguageingeneral,alsoencompassestheviewsofBakhtinandVygotskyonlanguageas a dynamic and dialogic construct that  mediates  our relationship with others and theself, and importantly,  shapes  our minds in the process of use.Both Vygotsky (1978, 1987) and Bakhtin (1981, 1986a, b) have argued that utterances are dialogic in nature. With the active participation of two interlocutors,new awareness, understanding, and knowledge are created. In other words, theinterlocutors work actively together towards change (e.g., cognitive, affective oridentity) that is understood not as a fixed ‘‘point event’’ (Heritage 2005, p. 201), butrather as a process that ‘‘dawns, emerges and consolidates’’ (p. 201).Based on the ideas presented above, we expand a merely functional and/orinteractional perspective within which a small story has been studied so far (e.g.,Bamberg and Georgakopoulou 2008; Kjaerbeck  2008) with the concept of   languag-ing . Our view is that narrating a story is a type of languaging that mediates the never-endingprocessesofmeaningmakingthroughcognitivelycomplextalk  2 (Swain2006),including the process of making meaning of the self. The term languaging evokes ‘‘aprocessratherthanafinalproduct’’and‘‘remindsusthatproducinglanguage—thatis,speakingandwriting—arethemselvesactivitiesthatmediateremembering,attendingand other aspects of higher mental functioning’’ (Swain 2008, p. 2). In other words,languaging is a concept that incorporates communication but adds to it the power of  2 In order to tell a series of interconnected small stories, Alise used higher cognitive processes such asmemory, generalization, abstraction, logical deduction, metaphor, and clarification.Alise’s small stories 11  1 3  language tomediate attention, recall and knowledge creation. In this article, we arguethattheactiveengagementoftheparticipantinmeaningfulandcognitivelydemandingtalk, i.e., languaging, was crucial to the maintenance and development of Alise’scognitive and emotional health. Methodology The data discussed in this article were collected in the context of a larger studyinvestigating ‘‘the effects of languagingon the cognitive functioning of isolated olderadults’’ (Swain 2008, p. 1). 3 In the larger study, five participants were involved(Deters et al. 2008; Kim and Swain 2008; Motobayashi et al. 2008; Lapkin et al. 2009; Swain and Lapkin 2008). The data for this article were collected over twelve sessions involving the second author and Alise. Each session took place in Alise’sroom in MP between July and September 2006, approximately every week. An initialintroductory session was not recorded. All the other sessions were audio recorded(labeled sessions 1–12). In total, they constitute approximately 18 hours of talk. Allsessions were transcribed with the exceptions of sessions 3 and 11. During thesesessions Alise and the researcher watched a movie together. Occasionally, theirsessions were interrupted by staff members of the LTCF who came into the room tobring tea and snacks, to check on Alise, or to discuss issues related to her everydayactivities. The researcher’s comments on these brief recorded interactions were notedin her field notes. In her field notes, the researcher also wrote her reactions to theimmediate context, and to changes in Alise’s mental and emotional states.In the larger study, the researchers’ goal was to encourage the participants tolanguage, and this was accomplished in various ways. The data analysisdemonstrated that in the case of Alise, storytelling, conceptualized as cognitivelydemanding talk, facilitated her active engagement and mediated a number of positive changes in her cognitive and affective functioning (Swain and Lapkin 2008;Lenchuk  2009).The present article focuses on an investigation of how Alise positioned herself,and the re-emerging social identity she indexed in her small stories and the type of discourses (see section on Elderspeak) she resisted while constructing her smallstories and narrating them to the researcher. According to the model of positioningthat was developed to understand the process of identity work, the self is alreadysituated in and referenced ‘‘to social positions and discourses above and beyond thehere-and-now’’ (Bamberg and Georgakopoulou 2008, p. 380). We will start ouranalysis with the description of Alise. Then we provide a description of MP, whereat times Alise was positioned as a cognitively impaired person by some of her care 3 In our study we draw on insightful findings of the researchers who worked with Alzheimer’s patientsand analyzed their speech patterns (see e.g., Davis 2005; Hamilton 1994; Ramanathan 1997). The purpose of their research was to describe, understand, and enhance communication with Alzheimer’s patientsfocusing on their accomplishments rather than the losses caused by the disease. While acknowledging theimportance of these studies, which introduced a new, humanistic perspective on the disease and peopleaffected by it, we would still like to emphasize that our research participants are  different  . Even thoughour participants experienced memory problems, none of them was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.12 I. Lenchuk, M. Swain  1 3  providers. Finally, we will demonstrate how Alise resisted this impairmentdiscourse and ‘‘how a sense of [a capable] self comes to existence by way of narrating’’ (Bamberg and Georgakopoulou 2008, p. 385) her small stories. Alise Alise (pseudonym) 4 was 75 years old at the time of data collection, and she hadbeen living at MP for 3 years. The researcher’s first impression of Alise was of anattractive, well cared for person with a sense of curiosity and a love of reading. Thewindowsills of Alise’s room were lined with books, and, without fail, open bookslay on tabletops and on the tray of her wheel chair. A positive rapport developedbetween the researcher and Alise, and Alise greeted each arrival of the researcherwith genuine warmth.Alise was born in Latvia and immigrated to Canada (via the United States) afterWWII. In session 2, Alise described to the researcher the traumatic events of thewar, when she was taken from her family and sent to work in Germany, ‘‘ … I hatewar, and everything about wars, and … x what I went through, I just don’t want … tothink about it’’ (2.260). ‘‘It was also horrible. The only reason how I could stand it[was] because I know there were people who were worse off’’ (2.262).Later in her life, she experienced another severe trauma when two of her sonsdied of AIDS. Alise never recovered from her loss. In one of the sessions, sheconfessed to the researcher, ‘‘It, it’s so bad. It’s something you can never get usedto … ’’ (1.651). As a deeply religious person, she tried to find solace in her faith;however, at times, she felt abandoned, ‘‘Oh, ( … ) It was terrible, the whole thing wasterrible. I often wonder why … God  did  that. Uh … the way I understand whether welive or die, it’s all up to God … Why did he take it out on me? I mean if he didn’tlike  them , I can understand how he would get mad at them. But why  me ? I am theone who suffered’’ (4.561).After the war, Alise traveled to Canada where she married and had four children(threesonsandonedaughter).Shewasinitiallyemployedasahairdresser,andthenasa secretary in a government agency dealing with issues of subsidized housing. In herfifties, Alise was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and at the time of datacollection, some ofher symptomswere severe: shewas confinedto a wheel chair,hadproblems moving her fingers and as a result she was not capable of performing anumber of daily routines, for example, cutting her food, dialing a phone number orwriting.AsAlisesaid,‘‘Inthebeginningyou,you,youdon’tfeelanythingmuch.Youthink,oh,Iam alittlebit clumsy now. Anditkept ongoing likethat. Andthen you getslowly worse and worse and worse. And one day you can’t eat, yeah … Uh, I can eat,but I can’t cut my food’’ (1.137 and 1.141).Once an avid reader, she could not read asreadily as she used to because her eyesight had been negatively affected by MS.Despite the difficulties and emotional traumas she had experienced in her life, insessions with the researcher, Alise projected herself as a strong character, who was 4 The participant’s pseudonym ‘‘Alise’’, a Latvian name, which has the meaning ‘‘of a noble kind’’,reflects her personality.Alise’s small stories 13  1 3
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