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Reminiscence Therapy

Reminiscence therapy helps seniors with dementia. Reminiscing is when someone shares memories from the past. Typically, with Alzheimer’s and dementia, people lose short-term memory first, but are still able to recall older memories. The goal of reminiscence therapy is to help seniors with dementia feel valued, contented, and peaceful. It can’t reverse or stop the progression of dementia, but the stress reduction and positive feelings can improve your older adult’s mood, reduce agitation, and minimize challenging behaviors like wandering. It can also provide seniors with dementia a feeling of success and confidence because it’s something they’re still able to do. It gives them an opportunity to talk and share something meaningful rather than just listen. Talking about happy memories of the past also brings joy, which is especially helpful if your older adult is having a hard time with everyday life.

Reminiscing is not the same as asking someone to remember something from the past. Remembering something specific, even from long ago, can be stressful for someone with dementia because they’re likely to feel pressured or put on the spot. In contrast, when a pleasant memory floats up and they share it with you, they’ll feel good. For example, your older adult might not remember right away when you ask even a simple question like “Where did you grow up?” But if you’re looking through old photographs, they might spontaneously say “Oh look, there’s my house. My mom baked my favorite cookies every Saturday – chocolate chip. They were so good.”

You never know which memories will come up when reminiscing about the past. Sometimes a painful or unhappy memory will surface. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you’ll need to respond with kindness and understanding. You know your older adult best so if this comes up you’ll have a better idea of whether it’s best to listen and offer support so they can feel better by telling the story or if it’s wiser to kindly steer them toward a happier memory so they won’t get stuck in a sad, distressed state.

The goal of reminiscence activities is to enjoy time together and set the stage so your senior has a chance to talk about any memories that come up. For best results, plan for a time of day when they’re most interested in activities, maybe earlier in the day. Choose a quiet, comfortable location where they’ll be able to hear and see you well. If your older adult doesn’t recall any memories during the activity, that’s 100% OK – maybe nothing came to mind at that moment. You could offer comments about yourself that might help spark a memory for them (like “This reminds me of going dancing”), but there’s no need to pressure them. With or without reminiscing, they’ll still enjoy these activities.

Memories can be associated with different parts of the brain, so it’s helpful to try activities that stimulate different senses. This is the time to use your imagination and get creative. Here are 5 wonderful activity suggestions to help your older adult reminisce over past memories in pleasant, relaxed ways.

1. Listen to their favorite music. Music helps people reminisce and relate to emotions and past experiences. That’s why it’s often recommended for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Music can even reach seniors with very advanced dementia. You can play their favorite songs, have a little sing-along, or play music on simple instruments like shakers, bells, tambourines, or a DIY drum.

2. Look through photos or keepsakes. Pictures or keepsakes that bring back memories are another excellent way to reminisce. Photos of family, friends, and important life events are always good choices. Photos of things that remind them of favorite hobbies are also great. For example, someone who loves to garden might enjoy looking at a gardening magazine or plant catalog. Someone who loved to cook might like a gourmet magazine with beautiful food photos. The same goes for sports, crafts, historical events, etc.

3. Smell familiar scents and taste favorite foods. Smell is a powerful ways to access memories. You could create scent cards or jars with smells that remind them of favorite foods (use spices) or a location like a pine forest near their childhood home (use fresh pine needles or pine scented sticks).

4. Taste is another way to evoke fond memories. Maybe they always made a special dish for holiday celebrations – you could make it for them and reminisce while eating together. Or maybe you could recreate a favorite snack they made for you as a treat when you were young.

5. Enjoy tactile activities like painting, pottery, or other crafts. Touch can also remind someone of the past. Familiar tactile activities like drawing, painting, pottery, knitting, sewing, or other crafts can spark old memories. Even if they can’t participate in these hobbies anymore, doing things like touching paintbrushes, swirling watercolors, scribbling with drawing chalk, squeezing yarn, or playing with fabrics can evoke strong memories. Another way to use touch is through objects. Maybe wearing or handling favorite pieces of jewelry or accessories (like a watch or a necklace) would bring up memories of significant life events. Other ideas would be to bring out a significant piece of clothing (maybe a dress or suit) that they use to love or wear to important events.

Reminiscing is another way to connect with seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia. These activity ideas are fun and have the extra benefit of stimulating memories and meaningful conversation. Of course, everyone is different and some people might not respond by recalling happy memories. But these are safe and inexpensive ways to boost mood and reduce anxiety. It’s a great technique to have in your toolkit and one worth experimenting with.



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