Storytelling is a way to connect during the pandemic

September 18, 2020 Providence Seniors Health Team


In this article:

  • Why should we tell stories? And why tell them now?

  • Storytelling can bring health, well-being, and hope.

  • Don’t wait — share your stories and ask others to tell theirs.

Just as COVID-19 has separated us, telling stories brings us together again.    

What is storytelling in the time of COVID-19?

Storytelling is about speaking truthfully and listening earnestly. It’s asking boldly and answering fearlessly. It’s sharing from the heart at a time when conversations matter more than ever. Storytelling isn’t about fairytales and fables — it’s about being authentic with those you care about, because time is the most precious thing we have now.

Similar sentiments were expressed during a “fireside chat” video conversation between Ira Byock, M.D. and Dave Isay.

Dr. Byock is the founder and chief medical officer of the Providence Institute for Human Caring, an organization with a mission to advance whole-person health care for frail elders, seriously ill or otherwise vulnerable patients, and their families. Mr. Isay is an author and documentarian, and the founder of StoryCorps, a non-profit organization that records and shares stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs. 

During their conversation, the two men explored how stories are helping build human connections during a global health crisis.

Why stories? Why now?

Think of a 90-year-old father and his fifty-something daughter discussing a decision that changed the course of his life forever. Or a grandmother sharing her loving views on life with her grandson, who’s just recovered from COVID-19. And then there’s the man who asks the question, “What will you do when COVID-19 is over?” It’s a query that will spark hundreds of responses — and stories — in the months to come.

Sharing memories and moments have become more vital now, as many face the prospect that there may be difficult farewells ahead because of this devastating pandemic. Dr. Byock encourages people of all ages to “Say, I love you … I forgive you … I’m proud of you.” “Because,” he says, “This time has intensified the need to have a conversation. Through storytelling, we can capture narrative time capsules of this remarkable period in our lives.” Mr. Isay adds, “Let this moment be a reminder not to wait. Now is the time to have conversations.”

Just as important, we can build on the benefits of social intimacy, including health and well-being, even as we stay physically apart.

Storytelling’s role in well-being

The Institute for Human Caring describes storytelling as one of the keys to whole-person care, which is healthcare that’s based on emotional, spiritual, and psychosocial needs along with medical needs.

Storytelling is making a place for itself as a way to improve health-related quality of life for patients. A recent report on the effect of a storytelling experience on elderly delirium patients in an acute care unit found the patients who engaged in the storytelling experience had a lower delirium screening score when they were discharged from the hospital. While there’s more research needed, this study and others like it support the idea that storytelling and other arts programs can play a part in wellness.

Similar results showed promise in a study about enhancing cancer patients’ well-being. After four months of using a storytelling tool, results showed that when patients told stories about their own lives, it had a direct and positive effect on their sense of peace, trended toward a less depressed mood, and appeared to protect against a decline in well-being.

Even telling stories about stressful times in life can help. This was demonstrated by a group of patients who wrote about an upsetting experience in their lives just before having biopsies. The study showed that being prompted to express something they’d never talked about in detail appeared to bring about faster healing.

This is certainly a stressful time. COVID-19 has created a chasm of isolation and literal separation for many. Dr. Byock and Mr. Isay believe storytelling is able to bridge that gap and bring people together again — in spirit, if not in body.

Start telling your story — and listening to theirs

Social-distancing restrictions because of COVID-19 have created a longing for human connection. If you’ve been battling loneliness and a lack of social relationships, try these tips based on Dr. Byock and Mr. Isay’s video chat and start your storytelling journey.

  • Build your “empathy muscle.” Storytelling is a shared experience between two or more people. Learning about other people and being open to their stories creates a sense of empathy. This is a muscle that needs to be exercised so it can help strengthen your relationships, balance your views of the world and enhance your well-being.
  • Remember to listen, too. In the end, people just want to be heard. And Dr. Byock describes listening as an “act of love.” You can start by asking questions and then simply listening to the answers — without judging or interrupting. Just as people offer their stories to you, you can give back to them by being fully engaged in what they say.
  • Do a life review. If you’ve been on this planet for a while, you have a story or two to tell. And so does someone you know — perhaps a friend, spouse or sibling. Need inspiration? Bring out a photo album or refer to some of the questions you can find on Mr. Isay’s StoryCorps Connect site. Looking back on your life, even as you stay hopeful about what’s ahead, can be an enriching experience for everyone.
  • Be brave. It often takes courage to tell stories about your life. It’s a challenge to open our hearts, but it’s worth it to know you’ve made a relationship stronger or even brought healing to your old wounds.
  • Honor those who are gone but not forgotten. During their chat, Dr. Byock and Mr. Isay talked about this poignant time that’s set against the backdrop of unexpected loss. Not only can you tell stories to remember and celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, it may also be a way to mend torn relationships. Sharing stories about a loved one who is gone reminds us of how fleeting life is — with or without a pandemic. As Dr. Byock pointed out, storytelling can help us learn to forgive others and, just as importantly, ourselves.

COVID-19 will create new stories to tell

You may want to share the pandemic stories along with the many other stories you’ve experienced in your life. The main thing about storytelling is to make a connection. To get started. According to Dr. Byock, telling your stories is a way to, “Say the things that matter most, to the people who matter most to you.”

You can learn more about telling stories during this time of COVID-19 in a special area of the Providence Institute for Human Caring’s site called the Coronavirus Chronicles. This storytelling and listening project captures experiences from caregivers, patients and others during the 2020 pandemic. You can also visit Mr. Isay’s StoryCorps site to make storytelling connections related to the pandemic.


Find a doctor

While telling stories is a way to connect during these stressful times, don't wait to talk to a professional about any depression or anxiety you're feeling. You’ll get help finding healthy ways to cope. Find the physician that's right for you in our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. 

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Related resources

Providence Institute for Human Caring

Grandparents can provide crucial support within the family

Dying should not be so hard

Older adults are getting creative to battle loneliness during pandemic

A Performing Arts Intervention Improves Cognitive Dysfunction in 50 Hospitalized Older Adults

Suffering in Advanced Cancer: A Randomized Control Trial of a Narrative Intervention

Writing and Storytelling for Healing

StoryCorps Connect

Coronavirus Chronicles

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

From how to identify and treat heart diseases to exercise tips to maintain an active lifestyle, the Providence Senior's Health team is committed to providing real-world advice that is hyper-relevant to helping those 65+ find ways stay young at heart

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