Once Upon A Time

How storytelling creates connection and helps cognition.


Storytelling is a beloved oral tradition that has educated, inspired and offered comfort since the beginning of time. Now, thanks to empirical research, storytelling has been linked to reduced cognitive decline in people living with dementia. A randomized trial, published in 2019 and led by the Fujian Medical University in China, looked at the impact of creative expression — such as developing a story — on communication, emotion, quality of life and cognition for people living with dementia.

                          Photo Courtesy of Canva

Facilitators used pictures to guide participants in the collective creation of a story using a U.S.-developed framework called TimeSlips, which is designed to encourage creative engagement among older adults as a way to add meaning to their lives.

The results, reported in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, showed that the intervention group — who participated in two facilitated storytelling sessions per week for six weeks — demonstrated “significant improvements in cognitive function” relative to the control group.

Other benefits included an increase in quality of life and communication abilities and a decrease in depression. These benefits continued to be observed after one month.

The results are no surprise to Doreen Vanderstoop, president of Storytelling Alberta, a charitable organization that celebrates and promotes storytelling to a variety of audiences, including older adults, through its StoryShare program.

In the fall of 2020, Vanderstoop began working with TimeSlips through the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. The training involved six hours of theory and three practice sessions, along with mentorship sessions and a self-evaluation process. Vanderstoop became a certified facilitator in February 2021.

One of the initiative’s approaches, as used in the study in China, is to bring an image into a storytelling session and ask “beautiful” questions of the participants to elicit their involvement. During one of those sessions, conducted with Alzheimer Society clients via Zoom during the pandemic, Vanderstoop used an image of a postman making a delivery.

               Photos Courtesy of Storytelling Alberta

Questions included: What should we call the postman? Where does he live? What do you smell?

Participants responded enthusiastically. They said his name was Joe, he lives in Calgary and they could smell the pine scent of winter. Throughout the session, Vanderstoop acknowledged and supported their storytelling efforts.

“They have something to offer and are completely validated. You can see them light up,” she says.

Now that she is a certified facilitator, Vanderstoop helps organize two TimeSlip sessions per month for people involved with the Alzheimer Society’s programs, and she is also actively seeking out opportunities to use this unique technique to serve people living with dementia in the broader community — all under the StoryShare umbrella.

“I am not a scientist,” she says. “But we know that storytelling improves memory. It is about activating the mind and the imagination. That is where the power is.”


To find out more about TimeSlips, contact Ali Cada, director of adult day and creative programs at Alzheimer Society of Calgary. Visit www.alzheimercalgary.ca or timeslips.org. To learn more about StoryShare, reach out directly at 587-578-6790.