From a young age, I was drawn to the power of stories. Between my obsession with the original Nancy Drew mysteries and my love for competing in storytelling contests, stories played a major role in my development.
Of course, stories aren’t just for kids. Storytelling can be engaging and even therapeutic for anyone, with significant benefits for seniors – particularly when the tales are personal.
The Power of Storytelling
“We know from research that narrating life stories can help older people resolve internal conflicts, overcome self-criticism, and improve their sense of self-worth,” says Dr. Karl Pillemer, Cornell University gerontologist and author of 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. “Particularly valuable are storytelling opportunities that allow for ‘integrative reminiscence,’ in which people tell stories about their lives that involve examining and coming to terms with issues in their past.”
Pillemer is referring to his work on The Legacy Project, in which seniors are invited to share their stories as well as their advice for younger people.
“For example, in addition to asking, ‘What did you do in World War II,’ we add the question, ‘And what did you learn from that experience that you would like to pass down to younger generations?’” he says. “We find that it is empowering to older people to be asked for their advice, and that makes the storytelling even more meaningful.”
Stories to Tell
For Dr. Kate de Medeiros, Miami University (Ohio) gerontologist and author of Narrative Gerontology in Research and Practice, the beauty of storytelling among seniors lies in its unique power to build community.
In her Self Stories writing workshop, she gives seniors the opportunity to write about things that are personally meaningful, and then share their stories if they choose.
“I find that the sharing part – reading it out loud, having others really listen and provide validation – is the strongest part of all,” she says.
Though the goal of the workshop is not therapeutic in nature, de Medeiros does find that participants experience catharsis in the writing and sharing of their stories.
“Many times, people write about their lives, perhaps with the intention that family would be interested, only to have their family members either not read it, or not provide any sort of meaningful feedback,” she says.
In the workshop, however, feedback is part of the process.
“People ask questions and make comments about different literary choices,” says de Medeiros. “That active listening part, to me, is the real strength of this type of activity.”
The moral of the story? No matter who you are – whatever your age, background, or education – you have stories worth sharing.
Chime in: How has recalling a special story or memory in your life helped you emotionally?