By Sheri R. Levy, PhD, Rachel Smith, and MaryBeth Apriceno (Stony Brook University)
Who doesn’t enjoy a good story? This holiday season take a few minutes to listen to a story from an older person in your life. You may learn a thing or two and even find some inspiration. Sure, there are lots of self-help and motivational books out there, but a wealth of helpful inside information about how to find happiness and fulfillment is likely waiting for you a lot closer than you think – at your own dinner table or your neighbor’s doorstep.
Long before the Internet and Wikipedia, older adults were a key source of information about how the world works and how to successfully maneuver our way through life’s endless twists and turns. Unfortunately, our jam-packed, fast-paced schedules often don’t leave time for us to take even a few minutes to learn from the older adults we know.
Spending those few minutes together can be mutually beneficial. When older adults share about their lives, there are psychological benefits for both the older individuals doing the talking and for the younger people doing the listening. Since at least the 1960s, healthcare providers have been successfully dabbling in this kind of informal interviewing in which they encourage unstructured storytelling among older adults. Studies with healthcare providers as well as studies with children in schools show that older individuals doing the talking report reduced depressive symptoms and increased positive well-being, while the individuals listening report receiving valuable life advice and more positive attitudes toward aging and older adults. That’s a win-win.
This activity is simple to do and doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Just ask an older adult you know to share something about her/his life. Be sure to ask for details – lots and lots of them. The positive effects of storytelling are magnified when the story is detailed and comes to life. You’ll get a clearer window into their lives, and they will appreciate and enjoy an engaged listener.
So, go ahead and be a nosy relative, neighbor, and friend, and get to know more about the older adults in your life. You are likely to learn something new, while helping make an older adult feel more valued. You might just make a new friend, strengthen a bond, and discover a role model. Bring on the holiday cheer!
If you would like to learn more about this topic, the following articles might be of interest to you:
Butler, R. N. (1963). The life review: an interpretation of reminiscence in the aged. Psychiatry, 26, 65-76.
Clarke, A., Hanson, E. J., & Ross, H. (2003). Seeing the person behind the patient: enhancing the care of older people using a biographical approach. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 12, 697-706.
Gaggioli, A., Morganti, L., Bonfiglio, S., Scaratti, C., Cipresso, P., Serino, S., & Riva, G. (2014). Intergenerational group reminiscence: A potentially effective intervention to enhance elderly psychosocial wellbeing and to improve children’s perception of aging. Educational Gerontology, 40(7), 486-498. doi:10.1080/03601277.2013.844042
Levy, S.R. (2016). Toward reducing ageism: PEACE (Positive Education about Aging and Contact Experiences) Model. The Gerontologist. 10 AUG 2016, doi: 10.1093/geront/gnw116
Levy, S.R., & Macdonald, J.L. (2016). Progress on Understanding Ageism. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 5-25. doi: 10.1111/josi.12153
McKeown, J., Clarke, A., & Repper, J. (2006). Life story work in health and social care: systematic literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 55(2), 237-247. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2006.03897.x
Pinquart, M., & Forstmeier, S. (2012). Effects of reminiscence interventions on psychosocial outcomes: A meta-analysis. Aging and Mental Health, 16(5), 541-558. doi:10.1080/13607863.2011.651434
Sheri R. Levy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, USA. She earned her PhD at Columbia University in New York City, USA. Levy studies factors that cause and maintain prejudice, stigmatization, and negative intergroup relations and that can be harnessed to reduce bias, marginalization, and discrimination. Her research focuses on bias based on age, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, sexual orientation, and social class. With Jamie L. Macdonald and Todd D. Nelson, Levy co-Edited a special issue of Journal of Social Issues on “Ageism: Health and Employment Contexts” (Levy, Macdonald, & Nelson, 2016). Levy’s research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, and Levy publishes her research in journals such as Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Child Development, Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Social Issues and Policy Review. Levy was Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Social Issues from 2010-2013 and is a Fellow of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (Division 9 of American Psychological Association).
Rachel Smith is currently a graduate student and teaching assistant at Stony Brook University. Rachel received her BA in Psychology from Eugene Lang College in New York City, NY. Her research investigates the role of construal level in the narrative effects on social mindsets, and seeks to elucidate the link between concrete detail and beliefs shown to underlie different styles of person perception.
MaryBeth Apriceno is a graduate student and teaching assistant at Stony Brook University. She received her BA in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC. Her research investigates the impact of cultural messages and representations of aging in popular forms of media on ageist attitudes, anti-aging behavior intentions, and aging anxiety.
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