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How Does Reminiscence Help with Dementia?

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Updated February 9, 2022 – We all love to sit and recall the best times in our lives. The memories fill us up with that nice warm and fuzzy feeling. But, what if you were unable to remember your past due to a condition like dementia or Alzheimer’s? Sadly, that’s the reality for the millions of people living with a memory-impairing disease, however certain therapies, such as reminiscence, can help to boost their quality of life.

How does reminiscence help with dementia? Reminiscence:

  • Improves a senior’s self-esteem as they feel they’re being prioritized and understood
  • Decreases stress as their body produces less cortisol 
  • Boosts communication skills
  • Enhances the sense of living a meaningful life 
  • Allows the senior to settle conflicts that never had a resolution
  • Could help with heart rate and blood pressure 
  • Maintains a sense of family and its history

In this article, we will discuss reminiscence therapy in depth, beginning with a definition. Then, we’ll dive deeper into the above benefits. Finally, we’ll talk about using memory reminders such as memory boards and memory boxes for older people with memory loss due to dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.

Reminiscing can have many positive effects on an aging adult. According to the American Psychological Association, therapy using reminiscence is “the use of life histories – written, oral or both – to improve psychological well-being.”

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Reminiscence sessions are a great way for loved ones and care providers alike to spark old memories. The process allows people an opportunity to share what they remember about their life, which can help to improve mood and cognitive function.

This treatment technique works well in group settings and individual settings too.

What Is Reminiscence In Dementia?

To reminisce is to think back on older memories. It may be something long since buried in your mind or a more recent occurrence. Most often, seniors suffering from dementia are able to recall some older memories but not recent memories – this is very common.

Sometimes, reminiscence is even defined as “the enjoyable recollection of past events,” indicating there’s a little more to it than simply recalling something.

Reminiscence therapy for older adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is designed to improve the patient’s quality of life while helping them recall parts of their past they may have forgotten.

This therapy can be in a one-on-one or group setting. It relies mostly on the use of objects, images, sounds, and videos to trigger old memories.

…reminiscing is different from remembering specific things from the past because remembering something specific can be stressful for people with dementia. Also, they might feel anxious when asked to do that. On the other hand, reminiscing is a gentle recall of past happy memories, which makes the patient feel content, warm, and at peace.

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Sensory stimulation is an important part of Reminiscence Therapy. All a senior’s senses may be invoked during a reminiscence session, including sound, smell, taste, touch, and sight. This can make memories comes back to life more vividly.

For some dementia patients, clinical therapy may be used to unearth memories, while for others, conversations, props and cues are enough to bring back old recollections.

The Benefits Of Reminiscence Therapy For Dementia

Boosts Self-Esteem

Seniors with dementia were once self-sufficient adults who could do all their daily activities and everything for themselves, just like you might be right now. Gradually, though, they lost more and more of their ability to care for themselves, and now they can’t even remember basic things. It can really take a toll on one’s self-worth.

Since dementia affects short-term memory, but not always long-term memory, the use of reminiscence therapy can work to help seniors regain some sense of self.

Through reminiscence therapy, it’s possible to remind the person of all the positive memories and great things they’ve achieved in their life. As they regain a sense of who they are, they may begin to remember all the things that make them so wonderful. This can, in turn, boost a sagging self-esteem.

Reminiscence therapy can act as a corrective tool. It promotes person-centred care, which is at the heart of all good dementia care and is underpinned by Kitwood’s (1997) concept of personhood. It has been argued that ‘understanding a person’s past history is crucial to providing person-centred care for someone with dementia’ (Brooker, 2007, p. 89). Reminiscence therapy can support this understanding and subsequently person-centred care.

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Lessens Stress

It’s possible to lessen cortisol levels through reminiscing, says a 2017 study in Nature Human Behavior. Cortisol is the hormone chiefly responsible for an increase in our stress levels. 

Helps Seniors Communicate

The primary goal of reminiscence therapy is to help our senior loved ones to reconnect with not only themselves, but with others as well. Communication is a part of that.

Communication is everything in our lives. Whether we have verbal conversations, face-to-face interactions, or we talk behind a computer screen, we communicate with countless people every single day. This helps us feel connected to others.

Once you take that communication away, that sense of connection disappears with it. Not only does reminiscence therapy help to boost a senior’s communication skills, it could even improve their brain. Some studies have found that the brain can develop fresh pathways as a person talks more about their past.

Reminiscence might also be used in combination with speech therapy for dementia, which can help people with certain forms of dementia retain their ability to communicate for as long as possible.

And because this type of therapy can work in individual settings and community settings, it’s an excellent tool to use no matter where the senior is living. It helps to foster social interaction which is so vital to our well being.

Provides More Meaning In Their Lives

Imagine how scary it would be if you could hardly remember anything about yourself or your past. Do you think your life would have much meaning? Probably not, but seniors with advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s live that very reality each and every day.

By reconnecting with their memories and their sense of self, they can realize their life has tremendous meaning. As we’ve said before, this can help with self-esteem, but it can also boost a senior’s overall quality of life.

This form of therapeutic intervention respects the life and experiences of the individual with the aim to help the patient maintain good mental health.

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Aides In Conflict Resolution

It’s hard to wrap up a conflict with a neat little bow if you can’t even remember what you were fighting for. Wounds can run deep, and seniors can feel angry, hurt, and sad without remembering why. The events that caused these emotional injuries could have transpired years ago and still the senior may have these predominantly negative feelings.

By dredging up the conflict, a senior in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia (or any senior, for that matter) might be able to finally work past it. Perhaps the other person or people involved in the conflict are still alive so the issue can be talked through. Even if they’re not, with the help of a professional during reminiscence therapy, the senior could still achieve closure and let those bad feelings go.

May Lower Blood Pressure

The pathway to a healthier heart and blood pressure may begin with reminiscing. So says a book published in  2000, by Bruce Roberts and Howard Thorsheim, called I Remember When: Activity Ideas to Help People Reminisce

In the book, the authors reported that seniors who spent time reminiscing had healthier hearts and a decrease in blood pressure. What a wonderful way to help keep your body healthy.

Keeps Family History Alive

As an adult child, you may remember a lot of the stories your elderly parents told you when you were younger, but you weren’t there for everything. There are certain memories that only the senior has, and if they don’t share them, those memories will fade away as dementia takes hold.

Your family history is a rich and diverse one. Any pieces that can put together the whole puzzle of your family’s past, no matter how small, are always desirable. When the senior in your life can talk more freely about their pleasant memories and past experiences, everyone in your family benefits.

Reminiscing Themes And Memory Reminders For Dementia

Reminiscence therapy is a great way to connect with loved ones during dementia activities. Focus on your relative’s unique interests and incorporate family keepsakes, personal items or photographs for extra emphasis!

Beginning the reminiscing process is not as easy as asking your senior to “tell me everything.” They may want to do that but find that they’re unable or, like my grandmother, they may not feel their memories are important or are boring. When I prompted Grandma Agnes to complete a journal like the Memories for My Grandchild: A Keepsake to Remember (Grandparent’s Memory Book), she kept telling me her life was dull and there was nothing worth recording.

What she didn’t realize was that what was trivial to her (they went to a lake and had a picnic while waiting for it to get dark so they could see Halley’s comet) was a collection of gold nuggets for me. It helped me “see” my grandma as a young person with similar interests, hopes and dreams as mine.

It can be overwhelming for the senior to try to give you a lifetime of information in just a couple of conversations. Instead, it’s better to take things one theme or topic at a time until the senior explores the wealth of their memories attached to that theme.

It’s also very important to avoid asking open-ended questions and instead, using very simple questions which won’t overwhelm your senior loved one.

Some themes that can be used during reminiscence therapy include:

  • Military service or wartime (military service can be a very heavy topic, so you may want to tread carefully)
  • Pop culture
  • Schools attended
  • Favorite foods they enjoyed when they were younger
  • Grandparents and siblings
  • Occupation
  • Pastimes and games from childhood
  • Movies they watched
  • Favorite songs from their childhood
  • Family history

Feel free to tweak any of these themes as needed so they serve the senior in your life better. Using an activity that they are familiar with and have loved doing in the past is an enjoyable way to work through this therapy.

Do Photos Help Dementia Patients?

Part of a reminiscing session with a senior may begin by looking through photo albums. Is this effective in helping them remember things? It definitely can be! The older the photos, the better, as they may aide your senior in recalling faces, names and good memories they haven’t thought about in years.

If your senior struggles to remember events from these old photos, you can point out details and tell them about what it was like. Seeing everything in a photograph may help some fond memories resurface.

Besides photos, you can use other aides to get a senior’s memory working. For instance, play some music from their childhood and early adulthood. If you know the song your senior parent danced to at their wedding or other tunes that hold special meaning, play those especially. Otherwise, you can look at the most popular songs of decades at least 15 years back (and up to 30 years).

All of these visual and auditory stimuli can help to invoke past memories and that can, in turn, lead to some wonderful stories and history for family caregivers.

Memory Boards To Use For Alzheimer’s Patients

You can also try a memory board if your elderly parent has Alzheimer’s or dementia. A memory board is a giant bulletin board, sort of like the social media platform Pinterest, but in real life. You fill the board with visual cues and memories. These can include photos of your senior’s life as well as pop culture and historical events from their childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood before you were born.

Once you have made a memory board, take it to your senior and ask them if they remember anything. Hopefully, their face will light up as they see things that immediately bring back memories. A memory board can provide hours of reminiscing for your senior as they look at all the images, one by one.

What Should Be In A Memory Box For Dementia?

Not everything worth keeping is necessarily a photograph. If you have items and artifacts you think could help a dementia patent remember things, then you could create a memory box. This box can be as simple as a cardboard box or a more decorative one like the Wood Grain Remembrance Keepsake Box from Cottage Garden, which has plenty of space for keepsakes and comes with 12 note cards for loved ones to record their memories.

While this can include photographs, a memory box is more for everything else. Your senior’s memory box can be as big or small as you want, but obviously, the bigger, the better. Some items you might put in the box are:

  • Craft items, including sewing patterns the senior made themselves
  • Holiday memorabilia like Christmas stockings or keepsake ornaments
  • An old clothing item or shoes
  • A beloved hairbrush
  • A stuffed animal from childhood
  • Trinkets, including those from the senior’s wedding
  • Coins
  • Jewelry
  • Clippings from old newspaper articles (if these are still in good quality)
  • Postcards
  • Key chains
  • Records or CDs as well as musical instruments or sheet music
  • A recipe that’s been passed down in the family for generations
  • Medals or trophies
  • Souvenirs from a favorite vacation
  • Heirlooms
  • Gardening gloves if the senior loves gardening
  • Soap, essential oils, lotion, perfume, or some other favorite scent
  • Old sports memorabilia, such as baseball cards, a hockey puck they used themselves, a baseball, or a glove
  • Books the senior enjoys

Why Is A Memory Box Important?

Memory boxes are like time capsules to remembering for seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Besides being a very thoughtful and sentimental gift, they’re great to make for other reasons. For one, as you compile the memory box, you’ll find you learn a lot about your elderly mother, father, or grandparent.

You can also dig more into the history of your family if you make the memory box assembly a group project with siblings or other family members. They’ll have stories you might not have ever heard and vice-versa.

When it comes to the items in the memory box, your senior will also be able to use most of their senses, such as touch, hearing, seeing, and smelling. This could help them remember more.

Conclusion

It’s utterly heartbreaking to have a senior in your life who can’t remember their past due to Alzheimer’s or dementia. Reminiscence therapy can trigger seemingly long-lost memories. Having their old memories instills the senior with greater self-esteem, better communication, and enhanced conflict resolution skills.

As part of reminiscence therapy, you may put together a memory board or a memory box full of old mementos belonging to the senior. You’ll certainly learn a lot about your family as you do, plus the senior gets to sift through things they haven’t seen in years. Good luck!

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