Capturing a Legacy: The Importance of Storytelling for Older Adults

In the past 20 years, nurses, therapists and researchers have increasingly recognized the therapeutic significance of storytelling for older adults. Also known as reminiscence exercises, loosely structured storytelling and oral history activities can provide older adults with a creative outlet that offers cognitive, psychological and emotional benefits to the storyteller. The act and process of telling their stories offers older folks a means of engaging with the world, both past and present. This engagement has been shown to refresh an aging person’s sense of meaning and purpose and reinvigorate their zest for life and its pleasures.

The rewards and benefits of storytelling for older adults also extend to the caregiver, who serves as confidante and historian. Research into oral history projects in nursing homes found that nurses who elicited spoken stories from elderly people in their care were able to develop a stronger sense of their patients as whole people with complex and interesting lives. Shared stories have the power to bridge gaps created by time, distance and culture, and can serve to bring caregiver and storyteller closer together. Further, recording these histories is a powerful way to preserve the past for future generations.

The following steps can serve as a primer for preparing for and initiating storytelling sessions. For an excellent and comprehensive guide to gathering oral histories, see the Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide.


For the purposes of a structured storytelling session, don’t blindside your parent with a barrage of impromptu questions about their past, which may leave them frustrated by the imperative to remember specific events that took place long ago. Instead, present the storytelling exercise as an invitation borne out of your curiosity and respect for their life experience, and of the importance of recording and preserving family history. Offer an open-ended prompt and give the participant sufficient time to ruminate and gather their memories before sitting down for a more formal recording session. Here are a few ideas for initiating the process:

  • Ask your parent to describe their childhood home, first job, a beautiful day they remember, favorite season and so on
  • Visual aids, like an old photo, scrapbook or object from your parent’s past, serve very nicely as prompts. Ask him or her to describe the photo or object and how it makes them feel.

Tools you’ll need

You’ve asked your parent to prepare their memories, so make sure you have the tools necessary for a successful session. Prepare a quiet, comfortable space for recording. Brainstorm a list of related questions and prompts to help guide your participant and to keep the conversation flowing if necessary, and make sure you have their permission to record their stories. Your smartphone can serve as a recording device, and there are many recording apps that are easy to use and offer high-quality audio (verify that you have sufficient memory space on your phone prior to recording). Have a notepad and pen on hand for taking notes.

Keep the prompts open-ended

Show respect for your interviewee’s version of events by listening carefully and reserving judgment of their narrative. Avoid asking closed, “yes or no” questions in favor of queries that elicit description and emotional depth. Avoid placing too much emphasis on logical progression in his/her narrative and allow him/her to recount events and feelings as they remember them in each particular moment. Remain engaged with their story, and offer eye contact and visual cues of engagement (like nodding). Ask questions and offer prompts as necessary.

After the interview

For digital audio files, clearly label the file with the date and the participants’ name, and then backup the files to an external hard drive or to cloud storage for safekeeping. An app like DropVoxx is inexpensive and streamlines the process of uploading recordings to DropBox storage. You may also want to use your smartphone to take photos of any written notes, which you can then label and upload to the cloud service of your choice. When you make these digital files available to other family members and friends, you co-create a treasury of personal history. Other people may be inspired to create something else — a poem, a painting, a screen-play— from these stories.


You can then refer to the stories that your mom or dad told to reinforce their memory of the experience and to strengthen the bond between you. Help them work their storytelling muscle by asking if they’d like to repeat the exercise at a scheduled time. Offering an eager ear will help encourage their confidence and sense of agency in making meaning of their life.

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