Posted by Nick Cifuentes on December 21, 2012 in Campaigns

Contributed by Paula Spencer Scott, senior editor

Worried about how to keep a conversation moving along when visiting an older adult in a nursing home or assisted living? Sometimes it’s helpful to focus not on what you should say but on *how to encourage stories* instead.

Storytelling can be a wonderful, no-pressure way to spend warm time together. People with memory or hearing trouble will feel less social pressure. Best of all, you just might learn some never-heard-before tales and tidbits about your relative or your family history.

Some ideas for seamless storytelling:

Consider bringing mementos as starting points. Ask for help with photo albums, a family tree, or an old marriage certificate, for example. Say, “I’ve been wondering about . . . ” “I need your help figuring out . . . ”

Make it easy, not like a test. Avoid peppering your loved one with detail-focused questions (“Who’s that? Where was this? Do you remember?”), especially if memory loss is a problem. Better: “Is this Aunt Jane? She’s so tall!” “Did you like growing up on a farm?”

If your loved one blanks or resists broad questions, go more narrow. Instead of asking, “What was it like in the war?” you might ask, “Were you nervous traveling overseas for the first time when you enlisted?” “Did you ever think we’d join the war?”

Ask about superlatives: “Who was your first boyfriend?” “What’s the longest you ever wore your hair?” “What’s the fastest car you ever drove?” “Did you have a favorite birthday?”

Remember these three little words: “Tell me about . . . “Often the best way to get someone talking isn’t by direct questioning. “Tell me about . . . ” invites stories in a nonthreatening, non-quiz-like way.

For people with dementia, try encouraging free-associated stories. Reminiscence therapy encourages creativity and stories with the pressure of “getting it right” removed. Look at photos in magazines, on postcards, or in picture books together. Ask open-ended questions that encourage a story, such as, “Why do think she’s wearing a dress like that?” “Did you ever have a dog like this one?”

For more ideas about how to spend time with an elderly loved one, see 11 Tips for a Terrific Visit

Paula Spencer Scott is senior editor at, the leading online destination for caregivers seeking information and support as they care for aging parents, spouses, and other loved ones.  Paula is a 2011 Met Life Foundation Journalists in Aging fellow and writes extensively about health and caregiving.


  1. Kirk Sellman

    Another tip is to not be in a hurry in the interview. Once they get their minds on a specific time period, they might remember other stories. Don’t rush to get all of your questions answered. Listen to what they’re telling you and you might come up with followup questions which could lead to more stories.

  2. My aunt no longer recognizes me and is not very cognizant of what is going on in the present, but she is always willing to talk about the animals on the farm of her youth.

    This started as me wanted to relieve tension, because she tries to cover up the fact that she doesn’t recognize people, but it ended up with me getting wonderful stories.

  3. loveachallengebringit

    I worked with dementia patients. While it is true their short term memory is gone, their long term memory may still be there. I remember one lady who could tell you all the juicy stories of her youth and recite recipes her mom taught her in the old country, but couldn’t tell you what she had for lunch.

    Also early in the day is the best time to visit. The later in the day and they begin the “sundowning”…restless wandering.

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