Once Upon A Life

Storytelling enriches the lives of seniors—and their younger audiences.

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By John Lowe

Human beings are hardwired to love stories—from stories drawn on walls in prehistoric days to the stories of biblical times to the stories our elders tell at family reunions. If you think about it, you tell stories almost every day. Perhaps about something that happened at work, or about a conversation you had with a friend. We love to hear them, and we love to tell them.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests storytelling can be not only enjoyable, but also therapeutic for senior citizens. In countries around the world, family elders are held in high esteem, and their stories are meaningful for the younger family members. Seniors feel respected by being able to share their knowledge and experience. Here in the States, however, many seniors find themselves living in a senior home or community, and their memories and history are, unfortunately, not in such high demand.

That’s changing: Through storytelling, researchers are finding that the lives of senior citizens can be greatly enhanced. Dr. Wendy Scheinberg-Elliott of California State University Fullerton says that her research affirms: “It is very important for seniors to retell their stories. Seniors are empowered when they realize they have wisdom to share.” Hope Levy, a San Francisco–based geriatric consultant concurs, noting, “For seniors, the chance to tell their stories improves self-esteem, and enhances feelings of control and mastery over life.”

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Similarly, James Birren, the founder of the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies in Laguna, California, found that “telling stories improves the confidence of older adults. By recalling how they overcame past struggles, they are better prepared to confront new challenges.” Even seniors facing end-of-life situations find that telling stories helps them better manage that experience. Dr. Harvey Chochinov at the University of Manitoba studied the impact of storytelling on terminally ill patients, and his results showed a renewed sense of purpose and meaning among those who participated.

Storytelling even has a positive effect on seniors with early stage dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. “Storytelling opens the rules to imagination” says Anne Basting, founder of the TimeSlips Project. For someone suffering from dementia, it allows them “to create something new that accepts who they are and where they are in the moment.”

Storytelling also enhances the relationship between the teller and the listener. Caregivers have reported that listening to seniors tell stories about their lives gives them a better understanding and appreciation for the person they are caring for, and by listening, that person is showing the senior that they truly are interested in them, and not simply doing their job. The stories themselves can be remarkably entertaining and educational. This is what I experienced as I interviewed North Carolinians, like the great artist and Lexington native Bob Timberlake, now in his 80s. He shared an incredible story about how his family, and the families of his wife and best friend, were all indelibly linked together during the Revolutionary War. Another of my interviews was with the legendary North Carolina politician and Raleigh resident Rufus Edmisten. Mr. Edmisten shared the story of his invaluable tutelage under Senator Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings.

As research and anecdotal evidence grows supporting the therapeutic advantages of storytelling, senior citizen communities and facilities around the country have begun to introduce storytelling programs for their residents. That movement has found its way to Raleigh. At Atria Oakridge, an independent living community in North Raleigh, residents can participate in a program called StoryWise. The community has developed its own StoryWise card deck, with each card containing a topic for the reader to tell a story about. When the community comes together for story time, residents can volunteer to tell their story to their neighbors.

Alison Donnelly, community sales director at Atria Oakridge, has seen the positive effects of StoryWise firsthand: “Our community has really embraced this program,” she says.

“Our residents use their stories to find common interests with their neighbors, and they seem to enjoy both telling and listening. One of our residents told us about being the first person to sail around the world without navigation, and he became quite a celebrity in the community. Another woman used storytelling to recover from the loss of her husband, and she now interviews other residents to help them tell their stories.”

According to AssistedLivingToday.com, the benefits of storytelling for seniors include improved memory, relief from boredom, decreased feelings of depression, improved self-esteem, and improved quality of life. Seniors have a lifetime of experience, history, and stories to share. We owe it to them and to our future generations to provide opportunities where seniors can share those stories.

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