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How Does Reminiscence Help With Dementia?

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Benefits of reminiscing with older adults with dementia

In What Ways Does Reminiscing Help People Suffering From Dementia?

Reminiscing helps people with dementia by making them feel better and less stressed. It’s good for their memory and makes it easier for them to talk and connect with others. This therapy can also make them feel happier and more confident about themselves.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

7 Benefits Of Reminiscing For Seniors With Dementia

1. 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.


2. 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. 

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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 seniors in your life can talk more freely about their pleasant memories and past experiences, everyone in your family benefits.

Reminiscing Topics 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 (for example: 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.

Reminiscing Topics for Seniors with Dementia can 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 seniors 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.

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 patient 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

Frequently Asked Questions

How effective is reminiscence therapy?

Reminiscence therapy, primarily used for individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s, has shown positive outcomes in various studies. It can enhance cognitive function, especially in recalling older memories. Many patients experience improved mood, reduced depression symptoms, and increased social interaction, especially when the therapy is conducted in group settings. Additionally, it can mitigate certain behavioral symptoms like agitation. The therapy also bolsters communication skills, allowing patients to express themselves and share past experiences. However, its effectiveness can vary based on the individual’s stage of dementia, personal history, and the quality of the intervention. While beneficial, reminiscence therapy is often most impactful when combined with other therapeutic treatments.

Are there any disadvantages of reminiscence therapy?

Yes, while reminiscence therapy offers many benefits, there are potential disadvantages to consider. For some individuals, revisiting past memories can evoke negative emotions or traumatic events, leading to increased distress or anxiety. Additionally, not all memories recalled are accurate, and there’s a risk of reinforcing false memories. Over-reliance on this therapy can also hinder the patient’s ability to stay engaged in the present, potentially exacerbating feelings of disconnection. It’s essential to have trained professionals conduct the sessions to navigate any emotional challenges that arise. Lastly, like any therapy, its effectiveness varies from person to person, and it may not be suitable for everyone. It’s crucial to assess each individual’s needs and reactions to determine if reminiscence therapy is the right approach.

Is reminiscence therapy applicable for treating depression in individuals with dementia?

Yes, reminiscence therapy has been utilized as a tool to address depression in individuals with dementia. By encouraging patients to recall and share positive life experiences, the therapy can evoke feelings of happiness, contentment, and self-worth. This process can help alleviate depressive symptoms by fostering positive emotions and reinforcing a sense of identity. Additionally, engaging in group reminiscence sessions can promote social interaction, further combating feelings of isolation often associated with depression. However, it’s essential to approach with caution, as revisiting certain memories might trigger negative emotions in some individuals. While reminiscence therapy can be a beneficial adjunctive treatment, it’s crucial to combine it with other therapeutic interventions for comprehensive care. Always consult with a healthcare professional to determine the best treatment approach for each individual.

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