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Our everyday lives are filled with stories, but we often don’t think about it that way. When we tell our co-workers an anecdote at the water cooler, when we tell our spouses or friends about our day, or when we share a funny memory with an acquaintance, we’re telling stories. That process stimulates many areas of the brain, from those that use language to memory centers to those dedicated to socially “reading” others for reactions and other cues. Something so simple has major results—not only on our brains, but on our relationships. When you think about it, our communities are built on stories. And the same is true for the older people in those communities. Maybe even especially true!

Storytelling is a surprisingly simple way to address some of the downsides of aging that anyone can experience, like isolation or loneliness. But is particularly powerful for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Studies show that these kinds of narrative therapies can stimulate the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain on which dementia has the biggest impact. As Dr. Peter J. Whitehouse notes, “while a person’s memory may degenerate the human hunger for creative expression never entirely vanishes.” Storytelling is one way to satisfy that hunger without relying on skills and parts of the brain that may be deteriorated by memory loss.

Narrative therapies can boost self-esteem, a sense of autonomy and purpose, feelings of intimacy and engagement, and help participants feel involved in their communities, whether that’s a retirement home, their family, religious group, or other social networks. Storytelling gives seniors something to talk about, share, and pour themselves into without having to rely on cohesive memory or fixed social roles. Fragmented memories or distant associations can be applied to storytelling prompts to create deeply personal narratives that aren’t strictly autobiographical.

Birmingham seniors living with dementiaOne way to get started is with some photographs of people or animals in different settings. Stock photos work well, or images taken from magazines or newspapers. A woman playing with a baby, for example, might inspire seniors to recall elements of their own early parenthood, or invent a story about what they think her day looks like. If you find several images that show the same person in different settings, residents might string together a collective story about how the subject got from point A to point B: a woman at a flower shop for example, followed by the same woman at the grocery store might be getting ready for a party, a romantic dinner, or is treating herself for her birthday.

You might be surprised at just how funny, warm, and off-the-wall these stories can be. You can get great insight into the storytellers personality, humor, and wit listening to them share their creativity, and how they collaborate with the suggestions of others in their storytelling group. It is recommended that loved ones participate, too, as it’s not only a great way to spend time with your loved one, but to learn something new about one another.

Written by: Meghan O’Dea