The Power of Telling Family Stories

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Seniors, families and caregivers are increasingly recognizing 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.”

The Benefits of Putting Family History in Writing

There is a growing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence that sharing and recording stories is beneficial for seniors. While not a formally recognized therapy, it is a powerful medicine for all who are involved in the process. Research shows that writing on or reminiscing about family history improves self-esteem, enhances feelings of control and mastery over life, and often results in a new or expanded vision of one’s life.

For seniors, 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 Consulting firm.

“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 seventies 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 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. “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 Levy’s group activities, members are encouraged to prepare information in advance about their family relationships, life accomplishments, school, work and major life events. These building blocks highlight their purpose in life as well as legacies to leave to younger generations.

New Methods for Recording a Senior’s Stories

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 recently visited a friend in a rest home. She was disappointed that the woman had faded so much. “People didn’t recognize how vibrant this woman had been,” Gibson recalls. “My mother-in-law told me she wished there was a bulletin board attached to her friend’s bed that could display her poems, stories and artwork so people could realize the zest this woman 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 and 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 began to create a new, easy-to-use website 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 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 family members to be more compassionate, informed and effective in providing care.

Sharing Stories Is Beneficial to All Generations

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 just a forgotten page in a history book for them. My kids were intrigued, but I think it will take them a while to fully realize the gift they have been given.”

“It’s very important for seniors to retell their stories,” says Dr. Wendy Scheinberg-Elliott, Professor of History at California State University Fullerton. “It is equally as important for families to be interested in and heed these stories. Much is lost if the younger generation doesn’t take the time to hear them.”

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 and strengthens relationships among family members.

“Oral history is very bonding. My students make friends with the seniors, and the experience creates a sense of oneness,” she says. “Seniors are empowered when they realize that they have wisdom to share AND someone is there to listen. 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.

Reminiscing Can Be Therapeutic, But Seniors Often Need Help

“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 cognitively impaired and non-impaired clients. Frequently, her clients tell her things they would never share with their families. “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.”

These techniques lead to improved communication, as well as a closer bond between caregivers and 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.” According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 55 percent of adults 65 or older have a computer at home. Many seniors find that creating and uploading their stories to the web is rewarding and enjoyable, whether at home, in a senior center or at 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 don’t have the computer skills necessary to create their own life stories and share them on the Internet, but many caregivers, children and grandchildren have these skills and are willing to provide assistance. 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

In writing: One of the easiest ways to get a senior to preserve 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 to help guide them.

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

Another alternative is the Guided Autobiography (GAB), 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. There is a worldwide network of in-person GAB instructors who facilitate this process via online classes.

Through interviews: Interviewing a senior about his or her life is a tool that may be more powerful in the hands of an instructor or hired caregiver. Ironically, many seniors are less reluctant to “open up” to strangers than family members. Interviews may be recorded on digital devices, like smartphones. Some families may even opt for professional voice or videographer services.

“It’s both good and bad to interview one’s own family. A grandfather will not tell a grandchild all of the nitty-gritty details. They tend to clean up the story,” notes Elliott-Scheinberg. “On the flip side, it’s a wonderful experience for a child or grandchild to interview their elders, because it is hard for us to envision our parents and grandparents 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. Written, audio, and video forms of a family history may be available, depending on the services offered. Many companies also incorporate family pictures, home movies, and other materials into the finished product. Costs and products vary, so be sure to discuss all options and get commitments in writing.

“Talking with an independent person frees up the senior to discuss things that may not have been brought up for years,” says Wright of History in Progress. “I'll never forget one 80-year-old woman who sat on the couch and wept when I presented her story. She kept saying, ‘I’m so glad I did this!’ ”

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8 Comments

I love this! My brothers and I often remark that no one in our family remembers the details about our family history. And every time one particular aunt starts talking about the past, we say we need to video her. She is retired now and this would be a wonderful way to preserve family history and provide enjoyment too.
Life bios are especially important to record for people with early-stage Alzheimer's or another form of dementia. These memories should not be lost or forgotten.
I've always been interested in family history, maybe because my father was always telling stories of his youth. I began tape recording his stories and when he passed, my mother started telling me her stories. I also asked my siblings to write stories of what they remembered when they were growing up. It's fun to see when several of us wrote about the same occassion and each of us had a different perspective to the same event. We now each have a family book with all these wonderful stories from not only our past, but our parents and grandparent's past as well. I hope our children continue with this wonderful tradition.