Population Health Blog

Population Health Blog

Why It Matters

Guided Storytelling in Late Life: The Road to Positive Aging

October 31, 2018 | Comment

By Sarah Charbonneau

There used to be a common belief that people who reminisce are living in the past. Over the past several decades, this notion has shifted as the literature surrounding life review and reminiscence has expanded. Dr. Robert Butler, a physician, gerontologist, psychiatrist, and the first director of the National Institute on Aging coined the term “life review” and believed that it did not make people senile but instead was a way to benefit older adults as they coped with end-of-life issues.

Why does it matter?
Reviewing, reminiscing, and telling stories about the past in late life can act to empower older adults to gain a sense of hope, meaning, and value in their lives. Capturing and understanding how past experiences have influenced the path of one’s life can assist with understanding how an individual has become the person they are and where to go in the future. Family members might also find that the process of life review and storytelling can capture the history of the family to pass down from generation to generation. For example, there might be a philosophy that a family has held on to when it comes to certain values and beliefs. Making sense of these passed down philosophies, values, and beliefs can come from listening and documenting our familial elder’s oral histories.

What are the possible benefits?
There have been several documented benefits to an elder reviewing one’s life. Some are a decrease in depression and anxiety and an increase in life satisfaction. Completing life review, story-telling, and reminiscence in a group setting can also be a way to increase social networks and decrease social isolation. As groups of older adults review their lives together, they can make sense of how their experiences have been very similar or different from one another. This understanding can bring one to see that they are not alone in what they have gone through or to see how and why others have the ideas, values, and beliefs that they bring to the table.

How this is currently being done?
Life review, reminiscence, and story-telling can be conducted in several different ways. It can be done one-on-one or in groups. It can also be very structured or flexible as thoughts flow through one’s mind. As a Schweitzer fellow, I am conducting the life review process in groups to understand the most feasible way to capture the benefits of the process. I am doing this in a more structured way, distinguishing different themes and using several questions to guide these themes. So far, groups have expressed their notion of feeling more connected and closer, creating a sense of community. I have observed that several older adults participating in the life review process have visited memories that they have not thought about in a very long time. Some of these memories have seemed to help the older adults come to accept their past and notice how their past is important in shaping the person they have become today.

Sarah Charbonneau is a master’s student in the Wayne State University School of Social Work and 2018-19 Albert Schweitzer Fellow.

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