Dementia: The Importance of Storytelling

Written by Active Minds on Tuesday the 25th of February 2014.


Dementia: The importance of story telling

Illustration of two heads conversing

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Last week I came across a blog in the New York Times by Jane Brody (writing on health and ageing) entitled ‘Caring for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver’ in which she tells some tales from a husband’s life as a caregiver to his wife, who has been living with Alzheimer’s for over a decade. The story is compared to those in Psychologist and Author, Dr. Judith L. London’s new book entitled, Support for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregivers: The Unsung Heroes.

The book presents 54 other stories of situations that have confronted caregivers, encountered by Dr. London over the years. The stories provide an opportunity for Dr. London to offer her suggestions to those in similar circumstances on how best to deal with the situations reflected in the stories she is retelling.

It is a good reminder of the importance of storytelling.

Often we can find ourselves concerned with the stories of those with dementia, and in the interest of activities for those individuals, concerned with the therapeutic nature of reminiscence and life story. This is because if someone is encouraged to tell a story about themselves and/ of their past – and they are listened to – the process of that storytelling – of sharing – is fun and enjoyable and also known to enhance feelings of a sense of identity and a sense of self-worth.

And, in the process of the story being shared, we too get to know the storyteller a little better. And if we know them a little better, we can engage with them a little better. And if we can engage with them a little better, we can relate to them a little better. And if we can relate to them a little better we can care for them a little better.

“Sharing is caring”

The same therefore is also true when it comes to those who are the caregivers.

Sharing the anecdotes and stories of caregivers holds an almost identical value to sharing the stories of those with dementia – those who are the caregivers feel valued if they are listened to. Those listening can offer their moral support and; if they find themselves in similar circumstances, can learn from the stories being told.

In the case of Dr. London’s new book, there are 54 individual stories and I’d bet those 54 stories represent only a small selection of the stories she has collected in her years as a psychologist. Why? Because we are all unique (we are all individuals) and so are our stories. When it comes to dementia, the stories of patient and carer are as varied and unique as the people themselves.

In our efforts to relate and to understand better, it is vital that peoples’ stories are told, and listened to.

Stories offer a chance for healing, for relating and comparison and for learning.

The Science of Story Sharing

In a study by Princeton University, a team of scientists lead by Uri Hasson conducted a study on speaker-listener brain interaction. A bi-lingual subject was chosen to tell a story in both English and Russian to a group of people who could only understand English. Both storyteller and listeners were hooked up to MRI scanners to relay the areas of the brain that were activated in both parties throughout the story telling. When the storyteller spoke in Russian to those that could only understand English, there was no synchronisation in brain activity between speaker and listener. When the storyteller told her story in English however the volunteer listeners of course understood her story and their brains synchronized – when the speaker had activity in her insular cortex (the area of the brain which links to emotion) so did the listener, and when the speaker’s frontal cortex lit up, so did the listeners’:

A speaker’s brain activity can actually be replicated in a listener’s mind.

This is known as ‘neural coupling’ and it demonstrates that a listener can feel with a speaker/ storyteller…

“Communication is a shared activity resulting in a transfer of information across brains. The findings shown here indicate that during successful communication, speakers’ and listeners’ brains exhibit joint, temporally coupled, response patterns…”

Image showing two brain MRI scans of activity during Speaker-Listening Neural Coupling

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Storytelling can help to drive connection. Storytelling can help enourage empathy.

Storytelling + Storylistening = Storylearning

Telling and Listening = Learning

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In the case of someone with dementia, their story is an important part of their identity as an individual and the telling of their story an important part of feeling valued, connected and related to.

In the case of the caregiver, their story is an important part of their day-to-day life and telling their story an important part of their self-care, their therapy, and of feeling supported in what they do… “A problem shared is a problem halved”.

In both cases, sharing stories and those stories being listened to and understood, has the effect of reducing feelings of stress and isolation. It can be an empowering experience for both speaker and listener, and help to support the mental wellbeing of both parties.

Whenever we hear a story, we are wired with the desire to relate it to one of our existing experiences.

When someone’s story is listened to, and understood, the message is:

You are not alone and

I feel with you.