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What is Reminiscence Therapy for Dementia?

9 minute readLast updated July 14, 2021
Written by Claire Samuels

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.

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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.

How does reminiscence therapy for dementia work?

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.

Benefits of reminiscence therapy for dementia

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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6 ways memory care communities use reminiscence therapy for dementia patients

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:

  1. Memory prop boxes. Memory care communities may ask relatives to collect their loved one’s favorite mementos for a “memory prop box.” These mementos can be soothing and therapeutic during the transition to memory care and can give residents an opportunity to reminisce independently or with community staff and family members. The box can include items such as photo albums, treasured keepsakes, or favorite clothing, and items can be both calming and stimulating.
  2. Group reminiscence. Some communities offer group reminiscence therapy for dementia patients. An example of an activity one of these groups may perform: Residents may listen to music from their childhoods while sipping their favorite soda and freely share memories of summer vacations or school dances.
  3. Life skills therapy. Often, people spend much of their life in a specific job or role. Memory care communities may have personal engagement stations to replicate those professions. For example, a simulated office with a typewriter, phone, and note pads may be stimulating for someone who worked as a secretary, or an indoor garden with artificial crops, watering cans, and blunt tools could encourage reminiscence for a farmer. Providing mothers with dolls, bottles, and soft blankets is a particularly effective way to inspire positive memories and reduce agitation, according to The Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology.
  4. Reminiscence technology. Interactive programs are often used in reminiscence therapy for dementia patients. Engaging with technology can slow cognitive decline and improve mental health in seniors with dementia, according to a 2019 report in the Journal of Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders. Residents may have senior-friendly tablets loaded with home videos, favorite music, and family pictures. Some communities even use virtual reality to simulate familiar situations.
  5. Person-centered care for dementia. Personal histories and interests inform person-centered care for dementia. In this type of care, staff design activities based on an individual’s past and unique preferences in order to fulfill their emotional needs. By personalizing activities and therapies, communities encourage regular, healthy reminiscence.
  6. Sensory therapies. Sounds, scents, textures, and flavors can all elicit memory and emotion.
    • Music therapy: Residents can enjoy favorite songs, participate in singalongs, and even dance.
    • Scent therapy: Staff members use essential oils, scented wax, and sachets as memory cues. The smell of fresh-cut grass may inspire memories of Saturday morning lawn mowing, while roses could remind someone of their mother’s favorite perfume.
    • Texture therapy: Residents can touch soft yarn or fur, specially designed texture mats, and unique clothing.
    • Taste therapy: Comforting recipes and snacks may inspire memories of home-cooked meals or nights out at the diner.

7 reminiscence activity ideas at home

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.

  1. Explore family memories. Photo albums and home videos are a great way to inspire memories. Focus on images from your loved one’s past — pictures from childhood and adolescence are most engaging.
  2. Have a movie night. Is your loved one a fan of musicals? Do they watch weekly westerns on TV? Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection both offer hundreds of older movies for streaming. Your relative may remember Judy Garland’s singing or young Clark Gable sweeping actresses off their feet.
  3. Take a walk down memory lane. Places often hold memories. Search the internet for pictures of your aging relative’s favorite vacation spot, or big events they may have attended. Or, take a “walk” through their old neighborhood on Google Maps. If you still live near the area where they grew up, go for a walk or a drive and reflect on the things that have remained the same.
  4. Dust off the record player. Stream classics or sing along to popular songs from their childhood and adolescence. Christmas carols may inspire memories of sitting by the fire with family, while classic crooners can recall romantic first dates.
  5. Cook favorite recipes. Specific flavors and scents can transport people back to the time and place they first enjoyed a favorite dish. The hippocampus — a part of the brain critical for memory and recall — is connected to the regions of the brain we use for taste and smell, according to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience. A family cookie recipe could inspire memories of snacking in the kitchen after school, while a classic potato salad may remind your loved one of community potlucks.
  6. Inspire memories with favorite objects. Tactile reminiscence may help people with even late-stage dementia recall experiences. For example, the ridges of embroidery on a wedding dress could inspire memories of a marriage’s challenges and triumphs, and the cool firmness of brass buttons on a military uniform could recall a decorated service in the army.
  7. Engage in personal pastimes. Did your loved one attend baseball games as a child or have family picnics every weekend? Depending on their stage of dementia, try going to a local game, or watch one on TV from the comfort of your home.

10 engaging questions to inspire memories

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:

  1. What’s something that makes you feel happy or proud?
  2. What are some of the things you’re most grateful for?
  3. Are there any important life lessons you’d like to share?
  4. Can you tell me about a place that’s meaningful to you?
  5. What do you think about this painting/song/movie?
  6. What was your family like growing up?
  7. How do you feel about (something they love)?
  8. Can you tell me about the house where you grew up?
  9. Do you like animals? What about being in nature?
  10. What did you enjoy about the jobs you’ve held?


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Meet the Author
Claire Samuels

Claire Samuels is a senior copywriter at A Place for Mom, where she helps guide families through the dementia and memory care journey. Before transitioning to writing, she gained industry insight as an account executive for senior living communities across the Midwest. She holds a degree from Davidson College.

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