The Ten Stories: Inter-generational Conversations


Do you feel like you are hearing (or have heard) the same stories over and over again from your aging parent?  Millions of middle-aged and older adults fulfill caregiving and support roles for their aging loved ones.  Having to listen to the same stories over and over again can feel like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Many people assume that elders tell stories over and over because they forget having just told them.  But our research suggests there is much more to it than that.

Over the past few years, a research team at Queen’s University has interviewed middle-aged adult children, asking them to tell us the stories they feel they have heard repeatedly from their aging parents.  This research is an attempt to ease the burden of caregiving by shedding new light on the phenomenon of repeated story-telling.  

Here’s what we have learned:

  1. There are typically just ten stories that people tell repeatedly.  While ten is not a magic number, it does seem to be about the right number (give or take) to capture the stories that are told over and over.  
  2. A disproportionate number of stories older people tell come from their teens and twenties.  The 2nd & 3rd decades are a time when people make many of the decisions that shape the rest of their lives;  a time when values are consolidated and the adult identity is formed.  
  3. What’s important about the Ten Stories is not the factual details, but the lesson your loved one learned, or the value that was reinforced in the story – values like the importance of family; the gift of a sense of humour, even in hard times;  the value of education;  the need to speak up against injustice.
  4. The Ten Stories appear to be curated for the individual receiving them.  They would be different if told to another sibling, a spouse, or a friend.  

Our research offers some tips for listening for the Ten Stories.

  • Focus on just ten.  It can make the listening seem less overwhelming.
  • Write them down.  Writing challenges us to get the story straight.
  • Notice your loved one’s role in the story, as the message is often contained in that role.
  • Be attentive to feelings, sensations, tension, discomfort.   These can be signal or clues to the meaning of a story.  
  • Finally, remember that these stories are for you – selected and told in the context of your relationship with your loved one.  As such, they are a gift, chosen specifically for you, from a loved one who is running out of time.

People don’t tell the same stories over and over again because they’re losing their minds, but because the stories are important, and we need to know them.  Telling stories repeatedly isn’t about forgetfulness or dementia.  It’s a last-ditch effort to share what’s important.  

Our hope is that by better understanding the concept of the Ten Stories, caregivers may be able to listen in a different way to those repeated stories, and understand the messages they contain;  to know their loved one at a deeper level;  to assist their parent to achieve the reconciliation of identity that they seek; and, to validate that they have been seen and heard, and that they will be remembered.

Watch Dr. Mary Ann McColl discuss her research in her Queen’s Health Sciences Cinq à Sept Research Talk:

We are seeking volunteers to share their parent’s stories with this research.  If you are providing care or assistance to an elderly loved one, and feel you are hearing Ten Stories over and over, please call us to arrange a telephone interview.  Once the interview has been scheduled, we will encourage you to jot down a few words to remind yourself about the stories you wish to tell us.  Are there stories your elder has told about his or her childhood, family of origin, first love, first job, youthful friends?  Funny stories, sad stories, frightening stories …

To inquire about participating in this research, please:

email  [email protected],  or phone  (613) 533-6000 (ext.78019).  

For more information, come visit us at: