The Power of Storytelling

| Planning for Myself or a Loved One

Mature woman helping elderly mother with paperwork


The Power of Storytelling

Everybody loves a good story. Young or old, and from all walks of life, people are drawn to stories – both real and invented. Stories are bridges between people, cultures and generations.

Telling and listening to stories helps us bond, share knowledge and better understand each other. Storytelling is also a great way for older adults to record their life experience and their family’s history, as well as create a legacy for future generations.

When did humans start telling stories? As early as 35,000 years ago, we began depicting ourselves and scenes from everyday life through rock paintings. Over time, the art and the stories it told became increasingly sophisticated, with narratives about great battles and other major events told through engravings, tapestries, frescos and paintings. Meanwhile, stories also flourished in song, verse and spoken word. Today, smartphones in hand, many of us tell stories using nothing but emojis!

Benefits of reminiscing

Did you know that stories can be therapeutic? At some long-term care facilities, storytelling and reminiscence therapy (also known as life review therapy) are used to engage people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia that affect memory. Studies have found that the benefits of reminiscence therapy can include improved mood and behaviour, better communication, higher self-worth, reduced depression and a greater sense of meaning and belonging.

Whether you’re working with a therapist or thinking about stories on your own, be aware that revisiting memories can evoke unpleasant emotions as well as good ones. If you or your loved one feels uncomfortable or distressed, you can stop anytime.

Exploring your memories

If you would like to tell your own story or help a loved one tell theirs, here are five ways to get started:

  1. Make a list. You can start writing about your life from any point you like, or you can start by making a list of key dates, memories, accomplishments, milestones, people, lessons, etc. This can help you organize your thoughts and decide what you want to focus on.
  2. Describe a photograph. An image can bring back lots of memories. Choose one from your past and write a story about it. What was the occasion? What sights, sounds and smells do you recall? What happened before and after the photo was taken? For a creative exercise, you can also use photos unrelated to your life as “writing prompts.”
  3. Create a photo essay. If you enjoy photography, this could be a fun and meaningful project. Take a series of photos that tell a story, offer insight into a person’s life or follow a theme. Another option is to make an audio or video recording of a loved one talking about their life.
  4. Create a scrapbook, collage or memory box. Storytelling can also be an arts-and-crafts project. Collect (or make copies of) treasured photos and assemble them into a keepsake scrapbook or framed collage, or decorate a box and fill it with photos and other mementoes.
  5. Use life story worksheets. If you need a bit of guidance, or you’re helping someone else tell their story, check out the free fill-in-the-blanks worksheets from the Legacy Project.

Additional resources

Great Questions

This resource from StoryCorps provides lists of questions to start conversations with different people and on different topics. Try their “Good Questions for Anyone” or explore lists designed for grandparents, friends and colleagues, or parents. Topics include growing up, school, love and relationships, working, religion, family heritage, remembering loved ones, and more.

Memories Into Stories: A Storytelling Resource Guide for Senior Adults

This guide from Storytelling Toronto includes articles, links, videos and tip sheets to help you learn about the connection between storytelling and memory, and how storytelling can contribute to mental wellness. The guide is helpful for seniors who want to develop their storytelling skills, as well as for family caregivers, allied health professionals and anyone else who is interested in the power of stories.

What stories will you tell?