As rewarding as caring for an aging loved one may be, it’s also incredibly demanding and, at times, frustrating. Some people are still sharp-as-a-tack well into their 90s — able to recall remarkably specific details about growing up. But that’s not the case for everyone: Many older adults experience cognitive decline and memory loss as they age. In some cases, that includes developing dementia.
Watching someone you love struggle with short-term and/or long-term memory issues is itself a type of loss, perhaps causing you to grieve the person they were before, who shares some of the same memories with you. And while there’s no “cure” for dementia or age-related memory loss, there are ways you can help them reclaim at least some parts of their past, including reminiscence therapy. Here, we’ll answer your reminiscence therapy questions, including what it involves and how it can help people with dementia.
What is reminiscence therapy?
Reminiscence therapy is basically what it sounds like: different techniques and strategies to help people with memory loss remember events, people, places, and other details from their past, according to the Elder Care Alliance. The therapy uses all five senses — sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound — to engage in activities designed to aid people in recalling memories. These activities can include everything from simple conversations and storytelling to more advanced clinical therapies.
The concept behind reminiscence therapy was first introduced in the 1960s by Dr. Robert Butler, a psychiatrist who specialized in geriatric medicine. He proposed that when people are approaching death, they may find it useful to look back on their lives and put them in perspective — an idea we take for granted now but that was new at the time, Sandy Klever writes in a 2013 article published in the journal Nursing.
How do you engage in reminiscence therapy?
Not only does reminiscence therapy involve recalling past events, but it also encourages older adults to communicate and interact with someone in the present. There is no standard blueprint for reminiscence therapy sessions: They can be one-on-one or in a group setting. And while reminiscence therapy doesn’t require formal training, following a few guidelines can help you and your loved one get the most out of your time together.
Don’t Overlook Opportunities in Everyday Moments
You don’t have to sit down with a person specifically for a dedicated period of reminiscence therapy. Instead, Klever suggests engaging older adults throughout the day, including during meals and at bedtimes or while bathing. Don’t Overlook Opportunities in Everyday Moments
Ask open-ended questions
If your question has a simple yes or no answer, it doesn’t do much to further the conversation. Open-ended questions encourage lengthy replies and invites someone to share their personal thoughts, experiences, and opinions. They usually start with why, how, or what if. Try asking questions like:
- What was your first job?
- What was the best trip you’ve ever taken?
- What were you doing when you first found out about some major event, like President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, the fall of the Berlin Wall, etc.?
- What was the scariest dream you’ve had?
- What combinations of flavors do you like, and why do they taste so good?
- What is the most calming image you can think of?
- How would the world change if people could use magic?
- What do you love most about the place you grew up?
- Did you like your first job?
- What did you and your sibling do for fun?
Be an active listener
While engaging in reminiscence therapy with someone with dementia or other memory loss, it’s imperative to be an active listener. According to Klever, this includes “responding positively, asking follow-up questions, and allowing time for silence and emotion. If appropriate, share your own experiences as an offer of support.”
Listen to their favorite music
Music has strong connections to memory, so playing some of a person’s favorite music may help them recall events of their past. Even if they can’t think of a specific song or artist, simply playing something from their youth could help.
Share a meal from an old family recipe
To spark the memory of someone with dementia, make a meal they loved as a kid. Find an old family recipe and get cooking. You can make the meal together or surprise them with the dish. They’ll be captured by the familiar taste and smell. And as you share the meal, you can ask them questions about the dish, like where the recipe came from, who would make it for them, and if they had any stories about the meal.
Smell Familiar Smells
Cooking is also a great way to evoke memories from smell. The scent of certain spices or sweets could bring patients back to their past. Smells jog specific memories and emotions, so ask them what kind of perfume they used to wear or the name of their father’s cologne. Then gather the scents for them to wear or sniff.
Look through old photos
Break out the family photo album — especially if it includes pictures from their younger days — and see if that jogs any memories. If you don’t have access to old photos of the person, do a Google Images search for pictures of everyday life from a particular decade or time.
How can reminiscence therapy be helpful with dementia?
There are many ways that reminiscence therapy can benefit people with dementia and other memory and/or cognitive challenges — starting with the fact that it can increase their sense of purpose and self-worth. Because older adults may be isolated, it can mean not having other people around to validate their worth. “The wisdom they’ve acquired through years of experience can seem inferior in our fast-paced world,” Klever writes. “Reminiscence therapy can reaffirm the importance of their hard-earned wisdom.”
Here are other benefits of reminiscence therapy, courtesy of the Hospice of Southwest Ohio:
- Affirmation of their identity
- Increased ability to communicate
- Relief from boredom or a distraction from everyday problems
- Alleviating symptoms of depression
- Helps cope with aging
- Preserving stories and memories for future generations
In fact, that last one is a benefit for family members and caregivers, too, giving them the chance to learn more about their family or a slice of cultural history from a certain era.
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