Dementia Caregiver Tip: Have Patients Tell Stories

Storytelling is good for memory-loss patients.

It’s been said that when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground. Their treasure-trove of memories, life experiences and teachable moments is lost forever.

But recent findings reveal that allowing people with memory loss to talk about their lives and encouraging them to tell their personal stories contributes to their well-being. Surprisingly, it helps their caregivers, too.

Compelling Insights From an Expert

Joseph Gaugler, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Nursing and Center on Aging at the University of Minnesota, offered some compelling insights about this phenomenon in our Q & A session.

Q: How Does Dementia Affect a Patient’s Ability to Tell Stories?
JG: At first with Alzheimer’s, short-term memory is usually the most at-risk . But longer-term memory – memories from one’s past, childhood memories that were poignant and important to the person –  is sometimes maintained longer as the Alzheimer’s progresses. So people can often talk about their lives and their stories in a very touching way.

Q: Why is Storytelling So Important in Cases of Memory Loss?

JG: Telling stories is critical to the well-being of the person with memory loss, and also to the person who is caring for them. When someone is not able to express themselves in the moment, we often lose sight of who these individuals actually are, what their life experiences were, what they liked. That’s a critical gap in quality care for persons with memory loss or dementia.

Q: Can You Give an Example of How Storytelling Might Help?
JG: There was this great story of a man in a nursing home in northern Minnesota. He was wandering, was very agitated and somewhat aggressive in his behavior. Most of the care staff had no idea what to do.

A custodial staffer came up with a creative solution. He found out that this man had been an engineer. So he took a big piece of plywood and put all these levers and ropes and chains on it. He put it up in the custodial room and would have this guy “help him out.” That, to me, is a good example of why storytelling – and more specifically, personhood – is important when providing quality care for a person with memory loss.

Q: How Can Caregivers Use the Power of Storytelling to Help Patients?

JG: There is a program called TimeSlips, in which people are shown engaging photographs for which they create a story. Songs can be included, and they can act the stories out. It was high-quality research and it showed some good results with behavior problems and those kinds of things.

What Stories Would You Tell

Most people have compelling stories and life experiences they’ve never shared with anyone. But CaringBridge readers would love to hear yours – or find out about a story you’ve heard that inspired you to think differently. Please share today.

Comments (2)

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Jane Grudt Oct 05, 2017 1:31pm
I noticed the only comment so far is not related to the above as was many years earlier! It should not be here as is an ad. I would like to see spouse caregivers share their journeys somewhere, as it seems we have our world completely changed when our loved one has progressive dementia. I write a lot, but want to help others not feel so alone. Caregivers need a site like this to help them survive during and after their ordeal. As an RN, Office Manager, and wife of a spouse with Alzheimer's, I have learned so much, but so little is published on our personal feelings and struggles. We hear things like "the stress only increases no matter if you think you cannot handle anymore...." There is guilt, putting off any physical needs, trying to visit your loved one who does not know you,,,,, - would be nice to know we are not alone! Aug 30, 2013 11:12am
Great tips. Allowing seniors to tell their stories helps them feel connected. And even if their memory is failing and they forget about the conversation, research shows that feelings remain. This means that they will continue feeling good about your conversation, even after they've forgotten it took place. Thanks for sharing.