lovely old woman at garden

This is a perfect exercise in doing away with the paperwork, picking up an audio recorder and asking the questions to bring out the voice that so urgently needs to be heard, writes Dr Maggie Haertsch.

Grief, loss, isolation and loneliness are all too common as we age. Lack of personal knowledge, individualised service and the often cited ‘person-centred care’ phrase present an equally common challenge in the delivery of meaningful aged care support. One highly effective solution is for older people and their families to record and share their life stories and aged care professionals are ideal facilitators to make this happen.

We interpret our lives through stories. Think about it for a minute. When we get home from work just how often do you recount the days’ events to a willing listener? Our conversations are full of stories, examples of life that we draw on to make a point and to help illustrate an experience in the hope that it connects us to someone. A great story resonates with us emotionally and can be remembered for a long time, just like a book or movie. The power of telling your own story cannot be underestimated and to record it could not be easier.

There are many initiatives of recording peoples life stories across aged care services. Indeed it is not surprising the powerful impact a person’s story retold can bring to a family and the staff, as explained in a study of life story telling in Victoria (read the research paper here).

“Through his story I understood what he needed, not what we wanted, it’s what he needed. It’s had a major impact.”

“If she’s agitated I try to talk about the good old days when she used to help her father with the horse and cart doing deliveries. I wasn’t privileged to that information before. It helps manage her behaviour.”

Beyond Words is a group of volunteer biographers to help document the written life stories of older people.

Aged care services like UnitingCare Ageing and Baptist Community Care have created storytelling projects – as featured in an Aged Care Channel program. Education programs offered by organisations like Timeslips in the US help to create stories for people with dementia using visual experiences from photographs enabling the freedom of their imagination to be expressed without pressure to remember stories of the past.

In their own voices

One of the most powerful ways to tell a story is through the audio recording of the person’s voice. It has the effect of a radio story where our mind is left to imagine the scenes and our emotions are touched by the tone and pacing of the voice. Audio brings a story to life and such a simple recording done as an interview can be easily captured on any smartphone voice recorder with very high quality.

An impressive organisation is on a mission to record the stories of every day people  throughout the US. With every copy made of the interview a second is lodged in the national archives so that people learn firsthand about their family members for generations to come. Story Corps has recorded close to 100,000 stories since they started in 2003 with a recording booth in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. This powerfully passionate TED Talk by the founder Dave Isay gives us all an important call to action. Imagine the possibilities if every person in an aged care service has an audio recording prepared early enough before dementia progresses. Think of the questions you would ask, the connection that could be felt and the memory of that person preserved.

If you are stuck on what questions to ask, Story Corps have very helpful guides (available to read here). The empathy that develops through listening to a person’s story can only serve us better to truly respect that person as an individual, to be cherished and cared for, connecting the human spirit of a long life lived.

This is a perfect exercise in doing away with the paperwork and picking up an audio recorder and start asking those questions to help bring out the voice that so urgently needs to be heard.

Dr Maggie Haertsch is executive director and CEO of the Arts Health Institute, a non-profit organisation working to improve lives through the integration of the arts into all aspects of health and aged care environments.

Australian Ageing Agenda is media partner of the AHI.

Join the Conversation


  1. Arcare have recently initiated a Sharing Stories project which encourages our residents, clients, family members, volunteers and staff to share their experiences through their own stories. By providing an outlet for these fascinating insights from our wisest generation, we’re able to empower our elders by giving them a voice.

    Sharing these stories not only celebrates life, old age and the experiences and relationships of our community, but it also provides an insight into the day-to-day life of aged care. Due to this, the negative perceptions of aged care are now changing .

    For anyone interested in reading the stories from the Arcare Community, they can do so via our Facebook (, Twitter (, website (, or through our FIVE STARS magazine, which can be read online, or sent out to you by calling 1300 272 273.

    If anyone is interested in volunteering and speaking those from within our community in an effort to share the lives of our elders, please contact Hamisha on (03) 9559 9127.

  2. This is a great initiative. Thank you to those who have thought of this idea. Listening is so undervalued in Sydney, where it is all about individual autonomy and busy city life.

    This reminds me of the Human Library prgoram in Lismore, where readers can borrow “human books” and listen to their stories. The “bestseller” is a Sudanese man who walked across two African countries and lived through war, which reminds us never to judge a book by its cover.

    Not only can older people feel valued, but it is mutually beneficial for both parties. We can learn through dialogue, through experiences and through interpersonal interactions. We can all learn in so many different ways.

  3. SaY – Your History Project is happening in south Australia in the city of Onkaparinga.
    We are looking for local seniors who would like to share their story with some of our youth using social media
    Call Jules on 08 81860048 or email [email protected]

  4. Great to know people’s stories are being written. I’ve loved reading my parents stories and am now writing my own. Suddenly hit age 60 and felt it was time! I’ve been surprised at how much has changed from my childhood to that of my grandchildren’s. It is worth recording and I’d love to facilitate some students assisting elders to write their stories – that would be an awesome exchange.

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