The Power of Telling Family Stories

Once thought to be a useless activity or harmless pastime at best, seniors, families and caregivers increasingly recognize the value of reminiscences and life reflection. One of the first researchers to appreciate the power of life stories was Dr. Robert Butler, founder of the New York-based International Longevity Center. In a 1963 paper, he coined the term "Life Review."

"I was struck some years back by the fact that older people tended to review their life. At that time, whenever people reminisced it was regarded by psychologists and psychiatrists as possible early signs of senility," Dr. Butler says. "But because we were studying vital, healthier older people, it struck me how important it was for people to come to grips with the kind of life they had led.

How Caregivers Can Keep Family History Intact

There is a growing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence that is helping seniors capture their stories. While not a formally recognized therapy, it is a powerful medicine for the client, family and caregiver. Research shows that writing on or reminiscing about family history improves self-esteem, enhances feelings of control and mastery over life, and often results an a new or expanded vision of one's life.

For very advanced-age clients, the chance to tell their stories improves cognition, lessens depression, and improves behavioral functioning. "Writing shakes people out of their same old stories and makes them think differently about their lives," says Hope Levy of There's Always Hope, a San Francisco-based Geriatric Consultancy.

"Writing one's story not only boosts self esteem and reduces stress and anxiety, it is also a powerful tool for a senior—or anyone—to visualize and create their future," Levy says.

Levy cites the example of one of her clients, a woman in her late 70's who felt depressed and anxious over her own perceived lack of accomplishments in life. Levy assigned her the exercise of writing a letter to herself as a young child. Then she wrote a letter from her younger self to her present self.

"When she finished with the assignment, she walked out on Cloud Nine," Levy recalls. "She did it without anybody else, just the writing and her own feedback."

"It's never too early or too late to begin," says Levy, who, in her 40's has worked in lifelong learning throughout her career. "Writing out your thoughts has so many more benefits than simply sitting down and thinking them."

Life writing activities may be done individually or in structured groups. In group activities, members are encouraged to prepare in advance information about family relationships, life accomplishments, school, work and major life turning points, purposes in life as well as legacies to leave to younger generations.

How to Remember an Elderly Parent's Life History

Phil Gibson didn't set out to revolutionize how seniors record their life stories. He was just having a dinnertime conversation.

In the summer of 2006, Gibson's mother-in-law mentioned that she had visited a friend in a rest home. She was disappointed that the woman had faded so much. "People didn't recognize how vibrant the woman had been," Gibson recalls. "She told me how she wished there was a bulletin board attached to her bed that was filled with her poems, stories and artwork so people could realize the zest she had had when she was younger."

Shortly after this conversation with his in-laws, Gibson, 48, made another unexpected discovery.

"I was at dinner with a group of business friends. I was startled by the fact that every one of us had experienced a major life changing event with one of our parents or in-laws in the last three months," Gibson said. "In conversations, it was clear that none of us had prepared for losing that valuable connection to our histories and these very important people in our lives."

So Gibson, an expert web technologist, began to create a new, easy-to-use site to collect senior and family stories. After nearly a year of development and testing, he launched a free online service called GreatLifeStories.com. The site guides anyone—caregivers, seniors or family members—through the process of capturing, sharing and preserving the life stories of previous or current generations before they are lost forever.

These new technologies are the latest developments to give seniors, family members, and caregivers tools to help improve the mental, emotional, and physical health of older adults. As tools, they offer seniors a structured way of telling their life stories and passing their legacies along to children and grandchildren. And they often enable caregivers to be more compassionate, informed and effective.

How Caregivers Can Remember An Elderly Parent's Legacy

Capturing the life story of a senior can often be an activity that benefits both young and old.

"When I interviewed my mother about her life, my twin 13-year-olds and my 16-year-old were there," says Gibson. "Before our talk, WWII was a forgotten page in a history book. My kids were intrigued, but I think it will take them a while to fully realize the gift they had been given."

"It's very important for seniors to re-tell their stories," says Dr. Wendy Scheinberg-Elliott, Professor of History at California State University Fullerton. "It is important for families to be interested in and heed the stories. Much is lost if the younger generation doesn't take the time to hear life stories."

Scheinberg-Elliott has taught hundreds of students how to gather oral histories since the early 1980s and has collected hundreds of histories herself. She's noticed that the process of talking with seniors often builds or strengthens relationships among family members.

"Oral history is very bonding. The students and young people make friends with the seniors; it creates a sense of oneness with the seniors," she says. "The effects on seniors are empowering. They realize that they have stories to tell; parts of their life. Students are usually totally unaware of what life was like even a few decades ago."

Another benefit: senior storytelling often leads families to reconcile decades-long disputes. "People figure out that it really isn't important who gets mom's blue vase," says Elizabeth Wright of History in Progress, a personal history consultancy based in San Francisco.

How Reminiscing & Remembering the Past Helps Seniors

"It can't work without the family," says Dawn Lakasmani, of Dallas-based Seniority Counseling. "But families are often overwhelmed by caregiving."

Lakasmani uses several different reminiscence therapy techniques with both her impaired and non-impaired clients.

"I often work with people, especially men, on getting back in touch with feelings of control and mastery," Lakasmani says.

Frequently, the clients tell her things they would never share with the family. "I worked with one man who was a highly decorated war hero, and yet his family knew nothing about this side of his life," she said.

Lakasmani uses reminiscence techniques to "let the patient go where they want to go."

For caregivers, senior life story telling and gathering has been shown to reduce stress. The telling and sharing of stories enables caregivers to have a better understanding of the patient, leading to improved care.

Reminiscence therapy leads to more and better communication, as well as a closer bond between residents in care facilities. In addition, this type of activity may often bring problems to the surface that would otherwise remain undisclosed.

Seniors are also getting "wired." Those 55 and over are the fastest-growing segment of the computer-buying public. More than 40% of adults 65 or older have a computer at home. Unbelievable as it sounds, an average retired senior who is online spends more time online than an average teenager.

Many seniors find that creating and uploading their stories to the web is rewarding and enjoyable, whether at home, in a senior center or a computer class. Often, capturing a senior's life story brings a young family member with great computer skills together with a senior who has amazing life experiences.

Of course, most very elderly seniors won't have the computer skills necessary to create their own life stories, but many caregivers, children and grandchildren have these skills and are willing to upload information. Everyone can benefit from the process of helping a senior reminisce about treasured life memories.

Print a checklist on how to gather information for senior life stories

How to Record an Elderly Person's Life Stories

Writing: One of the easiest ways to get a senior to capture their life story is to have them write it out longhand. Assembling a small group of seniors in a regular writing group builds camaraderie and support. It's useful to have a list of structured questions on hand. The senior or their family member may wish to post the information collected on a web site, where it can be easily shared.

"I tell seniors not to be intimidated by feeling that they are not good writers," says Levy. "I tell them that they will be surprised what good writers they are, and their feelings of intimidation fade."

Another alternative is the Guided Autobiography, developed by Dr. James Birren, founder of the University Of Southern California School Of Gerontology. The Guided Autobiography writing sessions are usually led by a facilitator who uses structured themes such as "Branching Points," "Money," "Life's Work," and others to collect information and stories.

Interviews: Interviewing a senior about his or her life is a tool that may be more powerful in the hands of a caregiver than a family member. Ironically, many seniors are less reluctant to "open up" in front of strangers than family members. Interviews may be recorded on home analog or digital recorders or camcorders. Some families may even opt for professional voice or videographer services.

"It's good and bad to interview one's own family. A grandfather will not tell a grandchild all of the nitty-gritty. They tend to clean up the story," says Elliott-Scheinberg. "On the flip side, it's a wonderful experience for a child to interview their grandparents. It is hard for us to conceptualize our parents as children."

If a caregiver or family member can't or won't interview a senior, there is the option of hiring an experienced professional. One source for families to consider is the Association of Personal Historians, which has a database of about 600 experts who subscribe to a strict code of ethics. Costs and products vary, so the family should discuss all options and get commitments in writing.

"Talking with an independent person frees up the individual to discuss things that may not have been brought up for years," says Wright of History in Progress, who is also a member of the Association of Personal Historians.

"I'll never forget one 80-year old woman who sat on the couch and wept when I presented her story," Wright says. "She kept saying, ‘I'm so glad I did this!' "

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