Long before written record, humans were still telling stories. For over 200,000 years, this tradition has been part of our DNA and the lifeblood to entire communities and families. The story of one’s life is never an isolated fragment, but rather a thread interwoven with others’ to create a richer tapestry. These are the stories of both past and present, our roots. While our own part may seem like a work in progress compared to those who came before us, sharing life stories can have a profound impact on all. From children to our elders, the benefits of this act are far-reaching and transcend culture, place, and time.
At Root & Seed, we’ve seen firsthand how discovering stories can bring about a renewed sense of purpose and an ongoing journey of self-discovery. Even seemingly small memories become meaningful threads as individual narratives intertwine, bridging gaps between generations and enriching lives.
Why is knowing our elders’ stories so important?
More than ever in human history, our stories have travelled beyond ancestral homelands and around the globe. 1 in 5 North Americans today are second-generation immigrants, many of whom are part of the “sandwich generation” - the adult children who care for their aging parents while also raising the next generation. This growing population has a unique opportunity to learn about their roots from elders with direct ties to important places and times in their family history. Safekept with care, the cultural knowledge, languages, and memories of generations past can be preserved and passed down.
Fostering a sense of purpose
But the benefits of storytelling go even deeper. From the cradle into adulthood, “memory sharing” has been shown to inform our relationships and sense of history and cultural belonging. In one study, psychologists discovered that children who are most familiar with their roots were more resilient against stress and even had higher self-esteem. Why might this be? The stories we grow up with create early frameworks for “meaning making;” when we’re given narratives about our ancestors overcoming obstacles, for instance, it’s easier to envision ourselves doing the same. Unsurprisingly, children who grow up with strong resilience narratives have been found to experience greater socio-economic well-being throughout their lives. (So really, it could be said that “success stories breed success.”)
As exciting as these findings are, the benefits of sharing stories can have an equally powerful impact on the storytellers themselves. Our elders are driving forces as we create meaning of the world around us, but this mentoring role also gives them a sense of well-being. To test the impacts of having a “purpose in life,” Alzheimer’s researchers conducted a large-scale study of 900 seniors over seven years. The results speak for themselves: participants who felt they had a purpose in life were two times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s and even showed 30 percent less markers of cognitive decline. This sense of purpose can be found through storytelling.
For instance, elders who are asked to recount their life accomplishments or start memoir writing have been found to more fully appreciate what they’ve achieved in hindsight. Often, they will imbue their recollections with hopeful messages for loved ones to take forward. As psychologist Alison Crossley explains, “As we age, we can lose a lot of flexibility in our mental health, and the idea of reminiscing through life storytelling can help you get a stronger idea about who you are as a person and your value in the community, and the world.”
Lifelong learning and healing
There are lifelong lessons to be gained from storytelling between generations too. Perhaps you’ve had a realization like this already, when a story heard over and over since childhood suddenly took on new meaning as you hit a particular milestone or challenge in life. Besides seeing that “maybe mom was right all along,” making these connections can help us value our loved ones in new ways. Familiar stories often keep cropping up for good reason too! Researchers studying this age-old trend found that repeated storytelling is a method used by elders to impart their most important values and meaning.
As we get older, sharing more of our own stories - and seeing that others have a genuine desire to hear them - can be especially cathartic. Time alone can’t heal all wounds, but many of our guests at Root & Seed have inspired us with recollections of elders opening up about important chapters of their lives after years of silence. Sometimes it’s about seeking a sense of closure. Other times, they’ve just never been asked the right questions.
Both giving and receiving these stories can be instrumental in healing relationships as we learn to see each other in a new way. And just as trauma can be passed down between generations, this is where healing can be nurtured too. Some clinicians use family storytelling for therapeutic purposes, and Indigenous practices stress the importance of seeking out elders’ wisdom in mending the wounds between communities and families.
Fostering intergenerational family relationships through the exchange of stories offers a myriad of benefits that positively impact socio-economic well-being, mental health, and self-identity. By sharing narratives and inviting elders to share their wealth of wisdom, we can gain a deeper understanding of where we come from, and where we’re going.
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