By Sylvana Rinehart, Certified Concierge Care Advisor

My husband recently spent several months writing about significant aspects of his life, not for publication, but rather for the immediate family. Having been raised in a small town in Ohio and joining the Foreign Service, there are many aspects of his life that were not passed on to his immediate family. The impetus for writing about his history is that he has had to call his older sister over the years to get more details about his parents and extended family.  He now regrets not having been more attentive and recorded more assiduously their stories. She had spent more time around the kitchen table with their parents and heard their storytelling about the family and friends a lot more than my husband, who was the youngest and always on the go, either playing sports or at the YMCA. Thinking about his natural desire to have more details about his family, parents, grandparents, made him reflect that his grandson who lives on the East Coast, one day would want more details about his life, and that it was time to put pen to paper.

In dealing with seniors who have lived a full life and who might be needing to move into a retirement community, I often hear that they can’t leave their home yet as they need to either write or finish writing their book. Now I understand that they want to leave their legacy, share their lives with their next of kin. It is said that the need to write one’s history makes a good memoir. But it takes work and discipline. It might be something they have always wanted to do but lack the stamina. It should be up to the family, or friends, to make time to stop, listen and record their stories and thoughts. I confess that the thought has crossed my mind that some seniors who say they can’t move out of their home because they have so much to go through and want to finish their writing project, are just coming up with an excuse to stay in their home. That’s not always the case and now I might have a different perspective and be better equipped to advise the adult children on how to help with the transition, promising to help with the unfinished projects instead of neglecting their desires.

Some seniors are excellent storytellers, perfecting the art of storytelling over the years. If this is your loved one, don’t be fooled in thinking that you will always remember their stories after they have passed on. I assure you that if these memories are not documented, at some point you will wish you either had paid more attention or written them down. My mother-in-law for example, had many wonderful sayings for different occasions. My husband and I will often say to each other: “what would Mama Della say now?” and regrettably we can’t always come up with that perfect saying she would have said at the time. This can make us feel that we are not honoring her legacy.

The main benefit of storytelling is the bond it creates between people. Creating a storytelling connection with an older adult by recording life stories is one of the most meaningful and rewarding activities you can enjoy together. Seniors who reflect on their life experiences are often surprised and appreciative of how much they’ve been through. Thinking about and discussing the past also helps keep their minds active and engaged. In addition, sharing stories often leads to more communication and interaction which has been shown to reduce care-related stress. This helps prevent caregiver burnout and its negative effects on the relationship.

Tips to start life-story projects:

  • Ask open ended questions to keep the conversation flowing. You will be validating your loved one’s life and honor their self worth.
  • Record their storytelling session. Most smart phones have recorders. It will be nice to have your loved one’s voice on tape. A tip from personal experience – don’t record while at the dinner table – all you’ll hear is the clattering of silverware and not the conversation.
  • Go at their pace and ask follow-up questions. There might be some pauses and it’s good to give them the time to think and formulate a response. Don’t be in a hurry but be mindful of their concentration limitations.
  • Look through photo albums. This helps those with cognitive deficit, remembering the past and is an easy way to engender conversation.
  • Honor their life with a memoir and photos, which can become a family heirloom. It can also be little vignettes of different memorable occasions, which will thrill the generations to come.

Storytelling is important and brings us together. People like to know about others and as the offspring get older, they will invariably want to know about their ancestors. In a world of soundbites and rapid information sharing like texts and photos, it pays to take a moment to reflect on our loved one’s life and memories. I have always said that our seniors are much more resilient than the families expect them to be when faced with a move. Very often they fare better than the adult child, rising to the occasion. My belief is that they have gone through a lot during their lives and have had to face challenges we often ignore. No matter who it is, famous or not, that life was significant and is important enough to write or record.  For those who don’t know much about their loved one or who don’t have the story book relationship with them, this might be a lovely way to bridge that gap. You won’t regret it later!