‘Narrative gerontology’ helps older adults find their voice

Few of John Countryman’s classmates in the Department of Gerontology identified with the subject matter as personally as he did. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, it’s just that not all of his peers have his years of experience.

“I believe I have a sort of insider’s knowledge of the perils and promises of later life,” said Countryman (M.S. ‘20/G).

John Countryman
John Countryman

Gerontology is an encore career for the 71-year-old, who also has a master’s degree and doctorate in theater. He became interested in the process of aging after observing the way his parents aged.

“My dad got it into his head that he had lived the final chapter of life,” Countryman said, noting his mother approached aging with a more positive attitude. “I noticed state of mind had a lot to do with the way a person ages.”

He wants to focus his work “on the biography of aging rather than the biology of aging,” Countryman said. “I am interested in how people become more creative as they grow older because I have a 38-year background in the arts.”

Countryman has worked with groups of older adults in “playback theater,” where people tell stories from their lives that are then enacted by the troupe, and “reminiscence theater,” which focuses on oral history. He could have graduated in December 2019, but Countryman stayed at VCU an additional semester to complete courses in oral history as well as mythology and folklore.

“I think of myself as a narrative gerontologist. I call myself a ‘storian,’” he said, noting the word is a play on historian. “I engage in activities that are story based, and it’s very enriching.”

He is interested in how story informs who we are and how we operate in the world and the things that happen to us through the stages of life, he said.

Countryman also hopes to encourage and administer intergenerational programs, which he believes will be the wave of the future and help both young and old achieve a higher quality of life and increased longevity.

As his field assignment for his master’s degree, Countryman headed a program called Telling Our Stories at St. Mary’s Woods Retirement Community. In the weekly program, which is on hold due to the pandemic, residents share life stories from memory, as well as create entirely original stories in response to prompts Countryman gives them at the beginning of the class.

Because senior retirement communities have been on lockdown due to COVID-19, Countryman is currently focusing on how to increase the quantity and quality of resident engagement in assisted living, both in light of COVID-19 and beyond, he said.

“My research has found that when programs encourage peer support and train their staff to foster resident contributions in the development and facilitation of activities, reciprocal relationships and other approaches to engagement, they encourage the maintenance of residents’ social identities, restore a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and create a renewed sense of personal agency,” he said.

Countryman also created two guided autobiography classes online. “I have enjoyed these classes in the past and look forward to working virtually again,” he said.

He has been happy with the VCU gerontology program because of the social conscience behind it. “We go out in the community and make a difference,” he said. “It’s easy for me to get behind that.”

E. Ayn Welleford, Ph.D., associate professor and gerontologist for community voice; Jenny Inker, Ph.D., assistant professor and co-director for assisted living administration; and Tracey Gendron, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology, helped shape his understanding of the discipline.

“They had a profound influence on my thinking around working with older adults and my own aging,” Countryman said. “It’s a privilege to be associated with the program.”