“I remember that time when…”
So begins many a session of reminiscence therapy.
What’s reminiscence therapy? It’s using guided communication (and, often, objects from the past) to stimulate memories and help someone reconnect with her personal history. But that makes reminiscence sound more complicated than it is.
Picture this: searching for a pencil, you reach deep into a desk and your hand brushes across a seashell that’s somehow found its way into the drawer.
You pull it out, feel the ridges and the smooth inside.
As you hold the shell and touch the surface, memories of a long-ago trip to the beach flood your mind. You can hear the ocean and the wind and the birds. You feel the sun and salt on your skin, taste the sea in your mouth. The smell of waves fills your nose and you are almost transported to the scene, the feeling is so visceral. Walking in ankle-deep water looking for a perfect shell; your foot sinks into the sucking sand, a slight sunburn flushes your shoulders as another wave rolls in and tumbles the shells. You bend to pick up a nearly perfect one and the flash of the sun on the water momentarily blinds you…
Just touching that shell brings it all back.
Reminiscence therapy uses familiar objects to stimulate the senses into connecting with a memory that you wouldn’t have otherwise recalled. It could be looking at a photograph, hearing a song, the smell of fresh-baked cookies, the taste of a recipe you haven’t had in years.
Reminiscence allows us to relive events from our past. It is a process which focuses on the personal way we experience and remember events, rather than on chronological or historical accuracy. When we reminisce we don’t simply recall random events in a cold factual way. With reminiscing we are able to relive the experiences that are personal to us in a way that is vivid and engaging.
Reminiscing encourages older people to become actively involved in reliving and sharing their past with others. Although reminiscence involves recalling past events it encourages the elderly to communicate and interact with a listener in the present.
Reminiscence therapy has many benefits. It’s non-pharmacological, low-risk, cheap (or free), relevant to people of any age, beneficial to both participants, and it’s easy to do on your own. You don’t have to buy anything. You don’t need special training. Why isn’t this everywhere?
Well, in some sense, it is. Reminiscence therapy can happen without you realizing it. Drawing out someone’s memory as they share a story from the past is a key component of reminiscence therapy, and it’s something that you probably do all the time.
Reminiscence Therapy (RT) involves the discussion of past activities, events and experiences with another person or group of people, usually with the aid of tangible prompts such as photographs, household and other familiar items from the past, music and archive sound recordings…. Reminiscence therapy is one of the most popular psychosocial interventions in dementia care, and is highly rated by staff and participants.
Reminiscence therapy for dementia: Abstract
I’m linking to resources and studies at the bottom of this post, but I’m struck by how little research there is supporting the use of reminiscence therapy. It seems common knowledge among eldercare and other care professionals that reminiscence therapy offers many benefits without any real risk. Why are there so relatively few studies quantifying this?
Perhaps I’m jaded, but I think that it’s precisely because reminiscence therapy is free and easy that there are limited funds to support researching its benefits and mechanisms of action.
How can I try it?
The first two items in “Additional Resources” (below) are PDFs that have some great tips for guiding reminiscence therapy.
At work we’ve observed that, for many people with memory impairment, earlier memories (from approximately the ages of 7-27) are the most resilient to its negative effects. It seems that memories from that age are the most likely to be novel memories. Your first report card, your first kiss, your first car, your first time leaving home for college, the birth of your first child…these autobiographical memories are likely the strongest because they lead to self-identity. Your reactions to these experiences combine to form the basis of who you are.
My personal experience has been that it is often easy to trigger reminiscence in someone if you know something about their childhood or young-adulthood with which you can lead.
Leading questions are good: “What was it like growing up in Alabama?” while looking at a photo of her childhood home. Or, “I remember when you told me about moving to Kentucky. Why did you move?” while eating “Derby Pie.”
Let us know what works for you in the comments below!
One of my colleagues, Jason Zamer, explains in this video how he unintentionally tapped into reminiscence therapy.
The Benevolent Society, 2005, Reminiscing Manual version 1, ABN 95 084 045
The effects of reminiscence therapy on psychological well-being, depression, and loneliness among the institutionalized aged.
Woods B, Spector A, Jones C, Orrell M, Davies S.
Source: Dementia Services Development Centre Wales, University of Wales, Ardudwy, Holyhead Road, Bangor, Gwynedd, UK, LL57 2PX. email@example.com
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005 Apr 18;(2):CD001120
Source: University of Washington, 4745 16th Avenue NE, 2, Seattle, WA 98015, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
Spector A, Orrell M, Davies S, Woods RT.
Source: Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, University College London, 3rd floor, Wolfson Building, 48 Riding House Street, London, UK, W1N 8AA. email@example.com
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000;(2):CD001120.
University of Leeds, Leeds, England
A Cross-Cultural Investigation of Autobiographical Memory: On the Universality and Cultural Variation of the Reminiscence Bump
Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology
November 2005 vol. 36 no. 6 739-749
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