Storytelling: How to Deal with Dementia and Reach Your Loved One

Posted by: The Bristal

Remember how you loved making up stories as a child? Some scientists believe that human beings are hardwired to tell, hear and connect through stories.

The magic of stories extends to people with memory impairment too. New research suggests that creative storytelling activities for seniors with dementia can improve the quality of in-person interactions, as well as the overall quality of life.

How Creative Storytelling Works

The concept is simple: a caregiver shows a humorous photo to an individual or group of people with memory loss, and helps them improvise and tell a story about the image. The caregiver asks questions, and as participants chime in, using their imaginations to add elements and details, the caregiver records the responses and then helps shape the tale.

What the Research Says about Storytelling and Dementia

Research on the benefits of creative storytelling is accumulating. University of Missouri scientists found that participating in this type of creative storytelling improved communication skills and quality of life for people with memory loss. Participants demonstrated increased expressions of pleasure and initiated social communications; these improvements lasted weeks after the activity concluded.

Another study, published in The Gerontologist, found that storytelling activities for seniors with dementia helped them to become more engaged and alert. Another study, published in Nursing Research, suggested that participants were happier and better able to communicate as a result of storytelling activities.

Why do People with Dementia Benefit from Storytelling?

Talking with people with dementia can often be frustrating, especially if the conversation veers toward shared memories that are lost to the person with dementia. But people who understand how to deal with dementia have discovered that techniques used in improvisational theatre – a style that “lives in the moment” – can sometimes help families communicate with loved ones afflicted by memory loss.

Similarly, storytelling – which doesn’t depend on recalling facts – gives the person with memory loss the freedom to make up narratives. Some family members of those with dementia report that, after frustrating attempts to converse through shared memories, the simple approach of telling stories created an avenue to connect with the loved one.

Storytelling has three main benefits:

1. It gives people who may otherwise have limited abilities a chance to communicate.

2. It helps promote a positive social environment.

3. It lets caregivers interact playfully and enjoyably with the person with dementia.

In short, creative storytelling offers a non-pharmacological intervention for improving quality of life.

How You Can Do It

If you’d like to start telling stories with your loved one with dementia, try these tips:

• Consider the stage. A person in the early stages of dementia may wish to hold on to actual memories while they are still there, according to experts, and could feel threatened by this freewheeling approach. If you encounter resistance, put it aside and try again later.

• Create a conducive environment. Turn off the TV and choose a quiet setting. Try this activity during the hours of the day when your loved one tends to function best. You might try playing music during the activity.

• Choose thought-provoking, offbeat pictures. Large, colorful photos that are not realistic, such as a picture of animals doing something “human,” seem to work best. Avoid using family photos, which may inhibit creativity.

• Ask questions. Keep the questions simple and open-ended, so there’s no wrong answer. Such as: What shall we call this person? What could this be? What is going on here?

• Withhold judgment. Some people with memory loss may express their contrariness by using bathroom or sexual language. Try not to judge or react. Echo what is said, validate the comments, and move on.

• Be flexible. The story you’re developing doesn’t need to make sense and needn’t have a beginning, middle and end. Go with the flow.

Creative storytelling activities for seniors with dementia offer a way of writing a new story, giving them a feeling of getting back some of what the disease has destroyed. Try this technique at home with your loved one. You might just find that, when the creative sparks fly, your loved one’s quality of life can improve.

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