The Power of Telling Family Stories


Once thought to be a useless activity or harmless pastime at best, people are increasingly recognizing the value of reminiscences and life reflection. One of the first researchers to appreciate the power of life stories was Dr. Robert Butler, founder of the New York-based International Longevity Center. In a 1963 paper, he coined the term “Life Review.”

“I was struck some years back by the fact that people tended to review their life. At that time whenever people reminisced it was regarded by psychologists and psychiatrists as possible early signs of senility,” Dr. Butler says. “But because we were studying vital, healthier older people, it struck me how important it was for people to come to grips with the kind of life they had led.”

Benefits of a life history

Recording a family history can be therapeutic in the following ways:

  • Creates a reason for families to talk about things they may never have talked about before
  • May lead to reconciliation among family members
  • Helps families understand why certain family members act the way they do or why they hold certain beliefs
  • Creates a legacy for future generations
  • Builds bonds between generations
  • Gets rid of emotional baggage
  • Alleviates depression, anxiety and reduces guilt regarding past
  • Lets younger generations understand what life was like even a few decades ago

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How to keep family history intact

While not a formally recognized therapy, telling family history is a powerful medicine. Research shows that family history writing or reminiscing improves self-esteem, enhances feelings of control and mastery over life, and often results in a new or expanded vision of one’s life.

For very advanced-age clients, the chance to tell their stories improves cognition, lessens depression and dementia, and improves behavioral functioning. “Writing shakes people out of their same old stories and makes them think differently about their lives,” says Hope Levy of There’s Always Hope, a San Francisco-based Geriatric Consultancy.

Levy cites the example of one of her clients, a woman in her late 70′s who felt depressed and anxious over her own perceived lack of accomplishments in life. Levy assigned her the exercise of writing a letter to herself as a young child. Then she wrote a letter from her younger self to her present self. “When she finished with the assignment, she walked out on Cloud Nine,” Levy recalls. “She did it without anybody else, just the writing and her own feedback.”

“It’s never too early or too late to begin,” says Levy, who, in her 40s has worked in lifelong learning throughout her career. “Writing out your thoughts has so many more benefits than simply sitting down and thinking them.”

Life writing activities may be done individually or in structured groups. In group activities, members are encouraged to prepare in advance information about family relationships, life accomplishments, school, careers, experiences that impacted them emotionally, world events, etc.

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How to gather life stories

To preserve your family history for future generations, it’s best to get the elders of the family involved. Here are some tips for recording your family history:

  • Prepare questions in advance.
  • Decide if your family dynamic lends itself to a group discussion, or individual interviews.
  • Gather old family photos to help spur memories.
  • Set aside a quiet time and place free from interruptions.
  • Using a tape recorder or video recorder is a good idea, because it frees you from trying to frantically take notes while your family is speaking. It’s more like a conversation.
  • Listen attentively and gently.
  • Ask questions for clarification if something isn’t clear.
  • Don’t try to force the person into something they are uncomfortable discussing.

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Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra2 years ago

Thank you AgingCare, for Sharing this!

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

my great aunt spent a large amount of time driving around the roads near my great grandmothers house and writing down the things the older people said. Jokes, stories, remembrances, and recipes. These people were mostly well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s. My great grandmother told her last when she was 90. Her older sister still tells all. She (my aunt) made it a quarterly paper and would give the paper out to the locals she knew and loved. When my grandmother passed she wrote a short book of all of grandma's stories and such. It is a family keepsake and something we all treasure. When I read it, I can still hear my grandmothers voice. RIP Fleta Mae

june t.
june t.3 years ago

it is sad when people don't value the stories of their elders. Their stories are part of our legacy. They tell us where we came from, how we got here, why we are the way we are. When our elders are gone, they and their stories and our life histories are gone forever.

Anne F.
Anne F.3 years ago

Great encouragement to write down the stories - I treasure the memoirs people wrote a hundred years ago.

Kelly Rogers3 years ago

ty for the excellent info

Terry Vanderbush
Terry V.3 years ago

Great, as long as the stories are the truth

Nancy B.
N B.3 years ago

It is sad when families don't share their stories.

Lucie G.
Lucie G.3 years ago

This is such a important thing to do. Sadly i did not do this with my grandmother who lived in France durring the German occupation. She is gone now and so have her stories.

Dorothy Dickson
Dorothy Dickson3 years ago

I have very fond memories of the stories my mother told me and later on,my daughter. My 2 little granddaughters are only 3 and 2 but I hope I am around long enough to tell them some of my stories.

Ela V.
Ela V.3 years ago

happy memories of my grandma's family stories