The benefit of good storytelling

Editor’s Note

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.


Human beings have been telling each other stories for thousands of years. Even before the creation of the written word, people used storytelling to pass along knowledge, record their shared history and build a sense of community. However, new research is showing that storytelling can have tremendous social and psychological benefits for older adults and those around them.

According to those researchers, seniors who undertake the act of putting their life stories down on paper suffer less stress and anxiety and often see their sense of self-worth rise as they reflect back on their achievements. In some cases, these individuals find a sense of pride as they look over their list of accomplishments, remembering all they have done. In others, they find that as they think about it, they may have actually done more than they’ve given themselves credit for doing.

In either case, they find that this trip down memory lane fills them with a new feeling of belonging, and it gives them a sense of purpose, as they come to understand that they still have something to give to society.

While some individuals may undertake the task of writing down their stories on their own, others join organized groups where they are encouraged to record their memories on paper. These people often discover that they have formed a bond with the other members of their group as they realize they have so many shared experiences in common.

When these personal histories are uploaded to the internet, the memories they preserve are available anywhere in the world with just a few keystrokes. Many older adults find the act of uploading their stories the internet rewarding. However, if they are written out in longhand, when possible, they also preserve the historical record contained in that person’s handwriting, offering a glimpse into their personality that can’t be found on a keyboard.

Unfortunately, many older adults may no longer be able to undertake the task of writing down the stories of their lives. While their minds may still be sharp, strokes, arthritis or other age-related infirmities may have stripped them of their ability to guide the pen across the page. That does not mean, however, that their stories are lost.

Many seniors are being encouraged by their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren to sit down and tell their stories orally. This form of storytelling makes history real for younger listeners as they hear stories they would otherwise only encounter in textbooks come to life as they are told by the person who lived them.

A bond forms between the storyteller and the listener as those listening come to understand their link to the past, which exists in both the storyteller and the story being told. Meanwhile, those sharing their stories take great pride in preserving memories and events that would otherwise be lost to time, and they feel a sense of gratitude to the listeners for letting them pass on that knowledge. These stories can be videotaped or recorded digitally to provide a more permanent record for future generations.

Sometimes older adults who have kept their memories of war or other tragedies to themselves for their entire lives will open up later in life as a way of coming to terms with those tragic events. In other cases, older adults who have kept their dark histories to themselves for fear of facing scorn from loved ones, may find it easier to open up to complete strangers.

There are many resources available to assist seniors and their families record their stories for future generations.

Guided Autobiography (GAB) is a method developed by the late Dr. James Birren, which helps people document their journeys through life through the use of trained instructors. Participants are directed through questions and weekly themes meant to spark the memory and recover stories which have been forgotten. GAB has trained instructors in 33 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada and offers online classes for those unable to attend in-person workshops. They can be found online at guidedautobiography.com .

The Veterans Story Project’s goal is to digitally preserve the experiences of America’s veterans so that their legacy will live on for future generations. They are working in coordination with The Library of Congress – Veterans History Project and the U.S. Department of Defense – The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration 50thAnniversary, traveling to all 50 states to conduct the interviews needed to compile an oral history of veterans telling their stories. Their website is www.veteransstoryproject.com .

The Legacy Project based in Toronto, Canada is research and education group which works in both Canada and the United States. They offer a fill-in-the-blanks life story kit that can be used when interviewing older adults, as well as a list of questions that can be used during the interview. They also offer a Generations Scrapbook for children to use and a Life Interview Kit which can be ordered and used to document the person’s Life Statement. They can be found at www.legacyproject.org.


Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines in familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home consultation, call 330-332-1203.


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