Reminisce therapy encourages aging adults who have dementia to explore positive memories from the past through conversation, connection with favorite objects, and stimulating sensory experiences. In 1963, physician Robert Butler published “The Life Review: An Interpretation of Reminiscence in the Aged.” This text — often considered the foundation of contemporary reminiscence therapy — found that older people who have memory loss still maintain internal experiences and can remember the past with appropriate prompting. Reminiscence therapy attempts to use props, sensory stimulation, and talk therapy to spur remembrance of times past.
Reminiscence therapy doesn’t aim to recall specific memories — instead, it invites an aging adult to freely explore positive experiences. A question like “where did you grow up?” or “how many siblings did you have?” may be difficult for someone with dementia, and not knowing the answer can be frustrating or embarrassing. Reminiscence therapy naturally encourages those memories to surface, without the pressure of direct questions. For example, looking through old holiday cards may elicit surprising clarity: “Those are my three sisters, we would go caroling together in Wisconsin each December.”
Learn about the history of this unique therapy, how memory care communities use reminiscence in everyday activities, and how you can help a loved one connect with past memories at home.
Often, recent memories are the first to deteriorate in older adults who have Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. However, people may be able to recall memories from young adulthood and childhood with gentle prompting from a caregiver or loved one. Reminiscence therapy appeals to personal history, interests, and conversation to inspire these memories to surface.
A caregiver can use objects like photographs and favorite possessions to engage in dialogue with a person experiencing dementia, or they can elicit memories through sensory stimulation with music, art, scent, taste, and texture. Depending on your loved one’s stage of dementia, reminiscence therapy may lead to storytelling, specific recollection, or feelings of happiness and well-being inspired by the past.
People with dementia can develop positive feelings while experiencing less stress and agitation when they share memories from the past, according to The Eldercare Alliance. Reminiscence therapy allows seniors to access these memories without the stress or potential confusion of direct questions.
While reminiscence therapy isn’t a treatment or cure for dementia, it can improve quality of life, cognition, communication, and mood, according to a review of 22 studies of 1,972 people with dementia from Cochrane Library. Recalling stories and engaging in conversation about the past gives people who have Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia the ability to share what’s meaningful to them, to preserve family stories, and to maintain a sense of personal identity despite cognitive decline.
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Many memory care communities offer daily activities and therapies to increase relaxation, reduce agitation, and improve residents’ moods. By focusing on a senior’s social and emotional well-being in addition to their physical health, these communities promote residents remaining as active and independent as they can, even in the face of cognitive decline. Many memory care activities and programs are designed to recall happy past memories, and this recall can inspire positive feelings in the present. Here are six common ways memory care communities use reminiscence therapy:
Reminiscence therapy doesn’t require any special tools and can be a great way to connect with a loved one as part of dementia activities at home. Focus on your relative’s unique interests and incorporate family keepsakes and personal items.
You may be interested in learning something specific about your loved one’s life, but direct questions can be stressful and may lead to agitation. If you want to engage your aging relative with dementia, remember to ask open-ended, general questions that allow for reflection.
Rather than conducting an interview, appeal to their emotions and gently guide them as they begin to talk. Avoid questions with a right or wrong answer, and stick with broad topics. For example, ask about family rather than mentioning a specific relative by name. Try asking these reminiscing questions for dementia patients to connect with your loved one:
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