5 Tips to Help Seniors Tell Their Life Stories and Preserve Their Memories

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In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Dr. Patrick Sola shares the below tips to help preserve the memories of the older adults in our lives for generations to come. Dr. Sola is the Medical Director of Psychiatry for VeeOne Health and a practicing Child Adolescent Psychiatrist.

Throughout history, seniors have always been the best storytellers.  After all, they’ve seen it all before. They have the most life experience. They have survived the highs and lows.  More than any other age group, they also have the time to share their wisdom and life lessons with younger generations. 

Sometimes, however, they don’t want to tell their stories.  Some stories are painful.  Others are sad.  Also, if some of the details—like names or dates—are hard for them to remember, they can hit a storytelling roadblock and not want to continue.  Forgetfulness is frustrating and could cause them to withdraw.

It’s important, therefore, to be proactive and encourage them to share whatever they can.  The benefits are innumerable for both the senior and for you. 

First, when you ask for a story, you will help your parent, grandparent, or friend feel appreciated, especially if they feel isolated and out of touch with the younger generation. 

Second, you will learn something from the story—maybe a life lesson, an interesting story about world history, or something about your own family’s past.

Some of these tips below will help you encourage your elderly loved ones to share their memories with more comfort and with less pressure.

1. Find the Right Time

Some seniors stick to rigid schedules.  Others get tired easily.  Some are more alert at certain times in the day.  Others are sociable only at certain times.  So make sure you find a good time that works for your storyteller.   If you ask them for a good time, they’ll find it because they like to tell their stories as much as you like to listen to them.

2. Find a Photo or a Memento as a Prompt

When someone says, “Tell me a story!” it can sometimes be difficult to respond.  No one likes being put on the spot.  However, your parent, grandparent, or elderly friend probably has a lot of old photos in the book shelf or in a storage box.  Ask to look at the photos.  If you see one that you find interesting, just ask for an explanation of the photo.  As they tell their stories, more and more information will come flooding back.

A memento might prompt some interesting memories too.  Maybe your senior has some jewelry or a decorative plate or a souvenir that you remember seeing throughout your life, but you don’t know why it’s important.  There’s probably an interesting story behind it, so make sure to ask. 

3. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Sometimes it’s best to phrase your questions carefully in order to prompt more detailed storytelling and also to avoid any confusion.  Your senior shouldn’t focus on getting the specific details right.  Elderly people might have a hard time remembering exactly who someone is or precisely when something happened.  That’s ok.  So, instead of asking “Who is this?” or “When did this happen?” ask “What can you tell me about this photo?” 

4. Have Fun

Of course, it’s always important to have fun.  The more fun you have, the more your senior will open up to you and the more he or she will share.  You’ll be surprised to learn how much you did not know about their lives!

5. Say Thank You

It’s important to thank your senior for the storytelling session.  You want them to become comfortable with their ability to communicate and to share, even as they some of their other mental abilities begin to fade.  And everyone likes a thank-you.  Most importantly, you will want to continue the story telling sessions, so make sure your senior knows you appreciate the effort.

These 5 tips will benefit both you and your loved one.  Doctors and researchers are beginning to show how important storytelling is for healthy lives. So don’t miss your chance to help your loved ones tell a story and improve their health at the same time.

Related: How Tele-Behavioral Health is Revolutionizing Mental Health Care

Storytelling heals.

Storytelling increases resilience.

Storytelling improves self-esteem.

Storytelling empowers.