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How Storytelling Helps Us Live Longer

Guidance   »   Wellness   »   How Storytelling Helps Us Live Longer

The Power of Storytelling – An Ancient Tool That Connects Us to Each Other 

More than 30,000 years ago, ancient humans used ochre as a red dye to draw pictures on cave walls. Why? They were communicating through storytelling. In fact, storytelling is part of the human experience. Whether it is oral history or the printed word, all cultures throughout time have used storytelling as a way to connect to one another.

When we think of all the stories we have accumulated from our experiences across decades of life, it may not be as long or celebrated as Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, but that does not mean we don’t have interesting tales to share. The stories of our families and our ancestry are particularly enlightening as they help us discover who we are.

Elizabeth Winthrop Alsop, a noted author and daughter of renowned Washington political reporter, Stewart Alsop, recently wrote a memoir that uncovered a family secret she had never known. The book opens with the love story of her parents who met during World War II after her father landed in France after D-Day and her mother was a young British office worker. As the story continues it details Alsop’s childhood growing up in ‘50s and ‘60s Washington social circles among power brokers such as President John F. Kennedy and Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame. 

But what is intriguing about Alsop’s story is a discovery she made when she was caregiving for her mother who later in life had dementia. Alsop found old letters and other memorabilia in the basement and started reading about her parents’ lives during the War. As Alsop began asking her mother questions about that time of her life her mother shared a secret she had kept for more than 70 years. Both her parents served as spies during the War – her father for the OSS that later became the CIA and her mother who was a decoding agent for British Intelligence and part of MI6. Not only did they keep this secret from their six children but also from each other for most of their lives. This amazing discovery led to Alsop’s new book, A Daughter of Spies.

Family Stories Promote Better Health

Maybe not all our stories are as fascinating as Alsop’s but they are powerful in connecting the generations in our families. Last year, Yahoo! news reported six generations in one Scottish family were all living from the great-great-great grandmother who is 86 to the two-week-old sixth generation grandchild. This type of news would have been unimaginable even a few decades ago as most grandparents died when their grandchildren were young or not yet born. But with people worldwide living longer, grandparents who have relationships with adult grandchildren and even great-grandchildren are becoming more of the norm.

There are numerous benefits to grandparent-grandchildren interaction. One Boston College study found depression decreased in both grandparents and grandchildren who spent quality time together. Other studies have shown that family stories or intergenerational narratives as shared among grandparents and grandchildren help build relevancy for the older adults and resiliency among younger generations. Family stories are also shown to be a great tool in giving us a better sense of self and in creating empathy in both older and younger generations. 

One of the most well-known examples of intergenerational storytelling was the best-selling book and movie, The Joy Luck Club. The story is of four Chinese women who immigrated to America, had daughters in their newly adopted country and become friends over mahjong. Their young daughters struggle with the pressure from their mothers to succeed creating anxiety and feelings of inadequacy in the younger generation. But once the daughters learn of their mother’s stories as young women in China, they realize the strength over adversity it took for their mothers to leave their homeland. Ultimately, the daughters find their own strength through their mother’s stories believing they too can overcome life’s challenges.

Family storytelling is based on reminiscence therapy which has real health benefits for older adults, including those with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Loneliness studies have found severe negative health implications for older adults with one study comparing chronic loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In another study, chronic loneliness was found to increase Alzheimer’s risk by 40%. Reminiscence therapy studies have shown reduced depression and loneliness in older adults including those with Alzheimer’s.

Many senior living communities are encouraging residents to share their stories by facilitating workshops and even providing tools and services that help archive your memories. One of these services, LifeBio, uses an app to prompt residents to answer questions that are recorded. These oral histories are archived for families and the app uses artificial intelligence to turn the recorded answers into a beautifully bound life story book. Another service, MemoryWell, does the same but uses professional journalists to interview residents to create their life story. Both companies have developed versions to help those in early stage dementia capture their memories before they fade away. LifeBio’s research has shown a 15% reduction in depressive symptoms and an increase in happiness and satisfaction with life for the older adult through the experience of sharing their life story. 

We all have a story to tell. Capturing our memories reminds us of what our lives have meant and brings meaning to our younger family members as well. Let Kithward help you create the next chapter in your story by exploring the senior living options that create community and social health.

About Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling is a corporate gerontologist with an expertise in wellness and brain health across the life course. She is an author, podcast host, consultant and founder/CEO of Caregiving Club.

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