If you have had the experience of moving parents to assisted living or your loved ones are experiencing a degree of isolation or anxiety due to COVID, then reminiscing is a wonderful way for them to remember and cherish happy memories. Experts believe that as we age, reminiscing takes on greater significance. Here we look at the benefits of reminiscing for seniors — including those with dementia — and how you can help seniors reminisce.

What is reminiscing for seniors?

Reminiscing (sometimes called reminiscence therapy) is the act of recalling and sharing memories from the past. It relies on helping individuals remember past experiences through sight, sound, touch, smell or taste. However, it is not the same as remembering, which can sometimes cause stress and frustration. This is particularly the case if your loved one has dementia, as recalling short-term memories may prove difficult, whereas thinking back to older memories can be highly beneficial.

Reminiscing can take various forms, including one-on-one, group or family sessions. Engagement can also be casual (storytelling, singing a song, questions and answers etc.) or formal (videos, diaries, photos, a life scrapbook etc.).

7 benefits of reminiscing for seniors

Benefits Of Reminiscing For Seniors

Reminiscing has many wonderful benefits for your elderly loved ones

Reminiscing for seniors can have many positive effects, including:

  1. Preserving family history. Family members don’t often know much about their elderly loved one’s history. Seniors who recount past experiences can pass on valuable memories for future generations, and reminiscing can also bring families closer together.
  2. Improving quality of life. Seniors who reminisce may show an improved outlook on life. It can also promote sociability, provide meaningful interactions, and allow them to form new friendships. After remembering happy memories, seniors are often brighter and smile more. Plus, engaging in animated conversation with others helps seniors maintain balance in their lives.
  3. Reducing stress and depression. Reminiscence therapy is often used for seniors with depression and/or dementia. Studies have shown that those who reflect on their lives find greater satisfaction in their elderly years. Often, it is because they are distracted from worrying about their medical conditions, which can help build coping mechanisms. It can also be helpful in times of crisis and mourning.
  4. Promoting physical and mental health. Other studies have shown that seniors who reminisce show lowered heart rates and blood pressure. In terms of mental health, it can help enhance cognitive stimulation.
  5. Working through unresolved conflict. Reminiscing can often help seniors find closure. After reviewing past experiences with a more mature understanding, many individuals can move forward by living in a more healthy present.
  6. Eliminating boredom. Talking about the past can offer some relief and provide laughter and entertainment, especially for seniors who are less mobile or live in a nursing home.
  7. Improving communication skills. When seniors talk about their past, their memory ignites, and new pathways can form in the brain that give them an opportunity to practice communicating in a way that is meaningful to them.
  8. Enhancing self-esteem. Ageing can be quite challenging for many people. Reminiscing can help your loved one cope with growing older as they recreate their life’s meaning by being connected to the past. Sharing the past can also help seniors reflect on their achievements, appreciate what they have done, impart wisdom through shared experiences, and allow them to validate their personal life stories.

How to help seniors reminisce

Typically, most seniors will love taking a trip back through time, although some may need a little help getting started on sharing their stories and reliving good memories. As a family member, friend or carer, you should be prepared to listen, ask permission to talk with them about their earlier life experiences and, if they are living in an aged care facility, plan ahead for the conversations. Some suggestions for reminiscing include:

  • Viewing old photos. Seeing familiar faces and places will prompt memories and stories that even you, as a loved one or carer, may never have heard! Flipping through a high school yearbook can elicit great conversations. You could also print out some old photos and turn them into postcard keepsakes.
  • Referencing their favourite movies. This can include their favourite childhood film, a film they saw in a movie theatre, or a movie that impacted them in their youth.
  • Reliving holiday traditions. Ask the senior about what they most remember about their holidays in the past. It could be baking biscuits with their mum, spending time at a holiday home on the beach or camping in the great outdoors.
  • Playing music that is special to them. Hearing songs that positively impacted them can bring back positive memories, including their wedding song or a tune that was chart-topping during their youth.
  • Using objects to reminisce. Use or track down items that are/were present in their home and ask them about the story behind the object, including how they got it, why they have it, and what made it special to them.
  • Cooking favourite recipes. Try cooking one of your loved one’s favourite dishes, call them when you’re cooking to ask for tips, and then give them a sample when you’re done.

There are also a number of questions you can ask that will help you identify some helpful topics. These include:

The early years

  • What is your earliest memory of childhood?
  • Were you from a big or small family? What was the fondest memory of your family?
  • Where did you grow up? What was it like?
  • What were other kids like in your neighbourhood?
  • What was your favourite lolly?
  • Did you have a nickname and how did you get it?
  • Did you have a pet? What was its name?
  • What was your best friend’s name?
  • Did you attend any religious/spiritual activities such as those in a church, temple, mosque or monastery with your parents?
  • Did you wear a uniform to school? Did you have a favourite teacher? Why were they your favourite?
  • Did you learn another language? Do you still speak it now?

Adolescence

  • How old were you when you first learnt to drive?
  • What type of music did you listen to on the radio? What was your favourite record?
  • What was your favourite home-cooked meal?
  • How old were you when you went to your first dance?
  • Did you play sports? Who for? What position?
  • How old were you when you started working?
  • Did you take any risks when you were a teenager? What did you learn from this experience?
  • What was your first school trip? Where did you go?
  • Was there a book that influenced your life?
  • What was the first holiday without your parents? Where did you go?

Early adult life

  • When did you first fall in love? Do you believe in love at first sight?
  • How did you meet “the one” — the person that became your wife, husband or partner? How did you know they were the one?
  • How old were you when you became a parent? How did this shape your life?
  • What advice do you have for young couples?
  • What were the most difficult times? What were the best times?
  • What were you good at when you were younger?
  • What are some of the beliefs or values you have chosen as an adult that are unique and different from your family?
  • During wartimes, where were you located? What was that like? Who were you with? What helped you stay connected to your loved ones during this time?
  • What are some of the most important events that have occurred in your life?

Reminiscence activities for dementia

Music Helps With Dementia

Music can spark vivid memories for seniors

Reminiscence activities for dementia can benefit seniors in a variety of ways, including reducing depression, behavioural symptoms and apathy. They can also increase attention, enjoyment, social interaction, well-being, quality of life and cognition.

Families and carers can also benefit from the use of reminiscence therapy in terms of connection, communicating with the individual and helping them understand their behaviour. This can reduce caregiving-related strain and improve the delivery of individually tailored care.

In terms of reminiscence activities, they can be similar to those undertaken by loved ones who are not suffering from dementia. However, while the overall feeling of reminiscence can be positive, it can sometimes be an emotional activity that may trigger negative memories in dementia patients. So it is recommended that you try simpler reminiscence activities when the senior is most engaged, typically earlier in the day. Reminiscing activities for seniors with dementia include:

  • A memory box. Keepsakes and memories can often trigger positive memories of the past. Keep them in a box and whenever you pull an item out, ask questions and encourage conversation surrounding it.
  • Engage and listen to their stories, as they can sometimes progress onto other memories.
  • Life scrapbook. Creating a scrapbook filled with images relating to their past can be a powerful way of helping seniors with dementia reminisce in a visual way. Examples include past homes, holidays, school days, childhood friends, occupations, their place of birth, hobbies and interests, letters, their spouse and wedding day and family photos of children and grandchildren.
  • Social activities. Whilst reminiscence is usually a personal experience, that doesn’t mean it can’t be part of a group activity. Singalongs and movies can be great tools to engage multiple seniors with dementia.
  • Familiar locations. If a senior with dementia enjoyed visiting a location when they were young, taking them to that same place can be a great way to evoke memories.
  • Sensory stimulation. Using senses as part of reminiscence activities can be a powerful way of evoking memories. While sight is important in visual activities, other senses (like smell and taste) can help to trigger memories of the past. Examples include cooking one of their favourite childhood meals or taking them to the beach if they spent their childhood or holidays there.

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