Storytelling for People with Dementia and Memory Care Issues

 by Glenda Bonin          ©2016


As a touring performer, specializing in library shows, school assemblies and residencies, I was surprised to receive a phone call in 2014 from Sandy, a woman who had just placed her mother in an assisted living/memory care community. Her mom was suffering from the early stages of dementia, and she wanted to find a way to see that her loved-one was verbally engaged. She hoped to convince the owner of her mother’s facility about the value of adding storytelling to the regular program lineup.

Telling stories to groups of elders, particularly those dealing with dementia and memory care issues was not something I felt prepared to do. My first instinct was to decline her request. I was concerned about how effective my efforts might be, particularly since I had almost no experience with this audience demographic. Furthermore, since I do not have a medical background, I was not certain about how to proceed. At the time, I was aware of the successful TimeSlips programs provided to people with dementia, but was unaware of any other storytelling work similar to what Sandy was suggesting.

I decided to do a bit of research on elder issues and senior living communities. A creative aging symposium and a conference held by the local Alzheimer’s Association were encouraging and provided some guidelines for me to consider.

Armed with what I had learned about the different stages of aging and memory loss, I created a basic storytelling format to engage a wide spectrum of older adults. The plan includes a sensory stimulating artifact, a personal memory story and several short folktales relating in some way to a selected theme.

This format has worked well for me, and by making slight adjustments to the plan I can deliver engaging story sessions to five distinct groups of people residing in senior living communities: (1) active older adults; (2) seniors living at a group site in order to enjoy activities and meals in the company of others; (3) individuals attending day-care sites; (4) older elders requiring some form of medical assistance; and (5) residents in need of on-going memory care services.

My goal is to connect with each audience in a respectful and meaningful way. I make a point to introduce myself and acknowledge people by name. When it is appropriate, I provide individuals with a gentle touch (a handshake, pat on a shoulder). What a difference this makes for people who feel a bit vulnerable and are no longer as independent as they once were.

I realize some storytellers believe the use of a prop or an artifact takes away from the pure art form of storytelling by adding a theatrical technique. While I endorse the benefits of tapping into the storytelling delivery system of using expressive facial, body, voice and word images to engage the creativity and imagination of listeners, I have learned first-hand about the importance of adding sensory stimulation to the program mix for people dealing with dementia.

A particularly moving example of the power of an artifact occurred earlier this year when I created a lineup of stories about rocks and minerals. A friend and lapidary artist gave me several wonderful rock specimens to use. During the visit, I held up a particularly interesting rock and spoke a bit about the Gem and Mineral Show currently taking place in Tucson. I was surprised when Mack – who usually sits in the front row in his wheelchair, seldom speaks up and often appears to be sleeping –  looked up and said in a loud voice, “There’s iron in that.” He went on to correctly identify the composition of several other minerals. Before I left, I thanked Mack for participating, and asked him how he knew so much about rocks. He proudly told me, “I am a Geologist.” From that day to this, Mack is more engaged and eagerly participates when I tell stories to his group.

There are several challenges for storytellers working with older elders. I offer the following thoughts about the areas I have personally found to be most difficult.

(1) Don’t be discouraged by a lack of understanding from program coordinators about the value of storytelling.

(2) Be prepared to deal with resistance about adequate compensation for your work – negotiation can make a big difference.

(3) Be flexible and ready to adapt to interruptions of all kinds.

(4) Be ready to hear the sad news that an appreciative listener and sweet friend has passed away since your last visit.

Although I am not as financially rewarded for this work when compared to other storytelling bookings, I am richly compensated in many ways. My repertoire has grown tremendously, and I have become more confident about my ability to be extremely adaptable and present in the moment. Best of all, I am convinced that my work has made a difference for many who hunger for what storytelling provides.

So far this journey has been a joy, and I sincerely hope some of my storytelling colleagues will be inspired to develop their own unique story programs to serve this receptive and appreciative audience.

Storytellers wishing more details about my creative aging and assisted living/memory care programs may want to read my workshop handouts on the subject. Just follow the link below.

Bonin- GlendaGlenda was an avid reader as a child, and later fell in love with the way words become magical when presented in theatrical performances. As a young mother, she volunteered to organize the story hour program at a library in Matawan, New Jersey, and subsequently developed a part-time business as a children’s entertainer. She has worked as a professional storyteller since 1996, and finds that at each stage in her life new audiences appear. She is equally comfortable telling stories with puppets to 5-year-olds, recalling western history tales at local ranches, and sharing personal reminiscences with folks in senior living communities. Glenda has produced five different CDs.

Contact Glenda 

Website:    Phone: (520) 629-0270 or (520) 235-4171


This blog series is a part of the LANES Connections Project: Storytelling for All Audiences. This task seeks to celebrate connections to other organizations, professions, and audiences to which we are joined through story. If you are joined through story with another organization, profession, setting or special audience, we would love for you to share your experiences with us in a blog.



Storytelling for People with Dementia and Memory Care Issues — 1 Comment

  1. Dear Glenda,
    Peace and greetings and thank you for your excellent article.
    I, too began as a story teller for children and families but have added programs at Senior centers and assisted living residences. It evolved from the techniques I used with my mom over the last 4 or 5 years of her life when she struggled, mercifully, gently with dementia. I always encouraged her to share her family stories with me and since she sang with us all her life in church choir and in the car, we continued to sing together up to just about her passing.Singing not only was a joy for her; it seemed to help her focus for a while and enjoy what was happening.
    I also added an artifact to my program, a 1966 license plate, from my dad’s cars that starts a story I tell, but then I pass it around and invite my listeners to share, either with the group or with a partner, the stories of their first cars. This has been a wonderful way to engage folks and almost all have a fun car story and they share their stories with enthusiasm. Even after the program they want to talk, so I try to leave time for that. Your point number 3 is so true.
    I have also added a few enlarged photos of some of the cars I describe in my stories; they also seem to stir memories for folks.
    I also play the harmonica and sing old songs that many remember and join in on; music seems to engage some when the spoken word doesn’t.
    I’m currently learning “In My Merry Oldsmobile”!
    Good Luck and God Bless in your work, Todd Goodwin

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