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
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.
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.