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Once Upon a Time: Storytelling with Seniors

Everyone loves a good story. From cave drawings to corporate marketing, storytelling helps people find purpose and meaning; it may have even helped with evolution by encouraging cooperation.

Multiple studies have shown that  storytelling impacts the well-being of seniors. When an elderly person shares the story of their life, especially with someone from a younger generation, “better aging” occurs. “Better aging” is simply having a higher quality of life that is healthy, active, and secure. Storytelling has also been shown to help patients with dementia communicate and participate. Listeners benefit too! Informal learning happens for everyone involved with storytelling.

With this in mind, here are some ways you help make the most of storytelling with the seniors in your life.

Understand why stories are repeated. Seniors may tend to tell the same story repeatedly but not because they have forgotten they have already told them. Instead, as Mary Ann McColl, associate director of the Health Services and Policy Research Institute at Queen’s University in Ottawa notes, it is “because the stories are important, and you need to know them. It’s a last-ditch effort to get your attention.” There may be a lesson embedded for the audience and there is always the opportunity for the storyteller to make sense of the life they have lived.

Be prepared. Come with an idea in mind with a specific story or time period. (Many times stories will be from the person’s late teens or early twenties.) Have some warm-up questions to get the conversation started, planned questions to focus on the story, and follow-up questions to add depth. These might include:

  • Where did you grow up? Can you describe your house/neighborhood?
  • What the best thing you ever did for somebody? or What’s the best thing someone ever did for you?
  • What are some of the stories about (our) family that you remember?
  • Can you tell me about the most important people in your earlier life?
  • What do you remember about <insert event or time, like the Vietnam War or 1970s>?
  • What brings you joy every day?
  • How do you want to be remembered?

The best questions are open-ended, meaning they have to be answered with explanation and detail as opposed to a yes or a no. StoryCorp is a great resource to find questions, listen to examples, and learn about ways stories can be shared; they even have a phone app for easy recording and archiving.

Technology has made it very easy to record stories. With a smartphone, stories can be recorded, photographed, and filmed. Make sure the battery is full and bring a charger just in case. Consider documenting the stories in a lot of different ways so it can be shared through email, social media, and hardcopy.

Listen for patterns. Most stories fall into the following categories:

  • Determination to make a better life
  • Community through connection
  • Perseverance in overcoming hardships
  • Fun with adventure and mischief

Storytelling benefits everyone involved but can be particularly meaningful for the seniors in our lives. As author Sue Monk Kidd writes in her novel The Secret Life of Bees, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” Ask a senior about a story to spark the memory of who and why they are today.

Sources: Council for Aging of Central Oregon; Ottawa Citizen; NYU; Nature Communications; Journal of Clinical Nursing