The Importance of Storytelling in the Lives of Resilient Older Adults

The myriad of factors that lead one person to age well compared to another are seemingly infinite. One of the newer factors receiving attention on the aging research forefront is the link between how older adults view their life narratives and their resilience. Recent research suggests that positive adaptation and coping strategies in later life (i.e., a form of resilience) are related to how older adults mentally frame the story of their lives. The researchers hypothesized that individuals who scored high in resilience would have richer and more complex descriptions in their self-narratives compared to less-resilient older adults.

To test this notion, the authors conducted life-story interviews with 20 community-dwelling older adults, and analyzed their stories for coherence, credibility, differentiation, openness, and integration, among other things. Prior research has found that factors such as these are related to the storyteller being more likely to have attributes that are positively associated with human resilience. For example, adults suffering from depression described negative memories about their lives in an “over general” manner, while differentiation and openness are often found in the stories of individuals who are less likely to be suffering from depression and consequently are more likely to possess qualities related to resilience. In sum, the main finding from the prior research suggests that if individuals can tell stories related to hard episodes in their lives in a cohesive and open fashion, with some sense of positive resolution in the tone of the story, then their narratives are more likely to be key moments in their lives which will help them overcome future adversity.

Knowing this, in the present study participants were asked to share their life narratives in an open-ended fashion with an emphasis on how they had personally dealt with adversity and on their views about the future. The completed interviews were then transcribed and analyzed for their complexity, level of detail, narrative arc, tone, degree of personal agency conveyed, level of autobiographical reasoning, and views of future, to name a few. Once qualitative coding was complete, the researchers then compared the narratives of the six participants with the highest scores on a separately administered resilience scale to seven of the lowest-scoring participants’ stories.

They found that all participants had experienced adversity in their lives (e.g., divorce, death of children, illness, etc.), and that all had interests, hobbies, and what the research calls “identity projects” throughout their lives. Notably, however, participants who were more highly resilient told stories that reflected a greater sense of agency than those who scored lower on a self-reported measure of resilience. What’s more, high scorers told stories that were indicative of a greater level of openness and a belief of being capable of tackling future adversity more so than those who scored lower on the resilience scale. The less-resilient individuals displayed more negative or unresolved memories of their childhood than the other group, and their narratives lacked clear resolution as well as a tendency toward obsessive reminiscence and espousing more victim-like motifs, metaphors, and themes in which they were passive characters within their life stories.

These are preliminary findings on this topic; more results that are likely to be published in the coming years should shed additional light on how life narratives play a role in the health and well-being of older adults.


Randall N, Baldwin C, McKenzie-Mor S, et al. Narrative and resilience: a comparative analysis of how older adults story their lives. Journal of Aging Studies (2015); 34:155–161.

Self-Fulfilling ProphecyHow Perceptions of Aging Affect Our Later Years

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