When we witness a loved one experiencing memory loss it can be a hard adjustment. When the memory loss is significant, it can feel like an emotional rollercoaster- not just for the family members, but for the individual too. Memory loss can cause bouts of confusion, anger and stress sometimes leading to lower well-being for everyone involved.
So what can be done to support these sometimes turbulent times? For many, the introduction of reminiscence therapy has improved the quality of life of those living with memory loss.
To reminisce is to “indulge in enjoyable recollection of past events”.
While reminiscing is a wonderful pastime activity, it has surprising and wonderful benefits as a form of therapy. In this post, we will look at reminiscence therapy (RT), it’s benefits- particularly to people living with dementia, and types of RT that you can practice at home.
What is Reminiscence Therapy (RT)?
Reminiscing as therapy has come a long way since the 1960s when it was first introduced.
RT is all about sharing and discussing pleasant memories. Focusing on the emotions and feelings this brings and not remembering specifics. It’s important to note that reminiscing and remembering are two totally different things. Remembering details can create tension and stress, while reminiscing is about finding comfort and enjoyment in reliving the experience through storytelling, TV, books, art, music, pictures and so much more.
Does it work?
The evidence of Reminiscence Therapy
Reminiscence Therapy is not only a great source of comfort to many, but it can even help elevate self-esteem, bridge connections with others, and even improve cognitive functioning.
Reminiscence therapy for dementia
When we look at cases of dementia, in particular memory loss, we can see that memories are lost in reverse order. So more recent memories disappear from the conscious recall sooner than long-term memories.
Elder.org explain that Dementia and Alzheimer’s cause short-term memory loss due to the neurotransmitters between the brain’s nerve cells depleting. These are the transport system for messages. We also see a loss of function in the region of the brain responsible for storing memories- the atrophy of the hippocampus. The hippocampus shrinks as it depletes while leaving holes. New memories are able to enter but are soon lost like sand flowing through a sieve.
While recent memories are not able to stay in someone living with dementia, they are still able to recall experiences from their younger days with often vivid description.
Through the repetition and practice of reciting and recalling these long-term memories, studies such as Geriatrics and Gerontology International found that reminiscence therapy vastly improved cognitive capacity for people with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s. Participants in the study also improved in their ability to participate in everyday activities, improved their psychological well-being, improved their relationship with others and had reduced depressive symptoms.
This is why reminiscence therapy is a great help and solace to those living with the condition, and to those closest around them.
Benefits of RT
There are many benefits of RT.
Improving quality of life
RT improves quality of life. Whilst eliminating the boredom that many elderlies may feel being stuck at home or in a care home, sharing memories can create laughter and enjoyment. Elderly people who reminisce over happy memories enjoy their time more and have a better outlook on life.
Promotes physical health
There is evidence to suggest that reminiscing can reduce blood pressure and heart rates according to CaringSeniorService.
Reducing symptoms of depression and boosts self-esteem
Patients with dementia and depression use RT to help them with their conditions. It increases their self-esteem and boosts their emotional well-being.
Talking with others about their lives not only makes them realise their accomplishments and experiences that boost self-esteem, but it can also make them feel more confident as they are being listened to and heard. Feeling connected to someone, even by listening and taking an interest in their life can improve their well-being.
Preserves family history
Unless we sit and spend a lot of quality time with our elderly family members, many of us don’t know their life story. Though listening to past stories from our elderly family members we learn more about them and even pass on valuable memories to our family.
Improves communication and connection
Some elderly people begin to close off and their communication and relationships break down as a result. This is especially true of people living with dementia as they often lose their friends as they go through changes.
RT enables these people to open up communication channels, make friends and improve relationships. There is even evidence to suggest that by remembering the past, new pathways are formed in the brain improving their communication.
Sometimes can reverse memory loss and delay institutionalization of people with dementia
A study that was published in 2017 concluded that through the use of creating a life storybook, cases of autobiographical memory loss were improved. It also has successful results in improving the identity and strength of couples through communication. Through this process, the study found that creating a life story and improving memory delayed the institutionalization of people living with dementia.
Real-life stories of RT
Pictures for RT
Ward nurse Steve Campbell and Head of Arts Services Colin MacCormack co-designed Cuthbertson WOW Project- a reminiscence programme for patients at the Gartnavel Royal Hospital in Glasgow. Whilst working in conjunction with Alzheimer’s Scotland they found effective activities which greatly improved the lives of patients in their dementia ward.
The project was quite simple, the ward had its walls dressed with photos from over 100 places in Glasgow, particular places highlighted from stories told to staff from patients’ lives. Among the photos were football stadiums, pubs, parks and much more.
Staff found the results of this project ‘phenomenal’! Patients who hadn’t previously talked began to speak, interacting with staff excitedly and one man with advanced late-stage dementia, who was believed to be ‘gone’, showed signs of still being present when he picked up a photo place of recognition and showed it to his son.
Robots for RT
One care home facility in Southend also uses the help of a robot to introduce RT to its residents. At one of the reminiscence sessions the robot named Pepper showed a clip from the TV show Fawlty Towers, and to the staffs surprise an elderly man with advanced dementia who was usually reserved with limited communication suddenly became animated and excited, recalling and predicting the next scene perfectly!
How can you use RT to help your loved ones?
Reminiscence therapy is a form of talk therapy.
Through the use of sensory stimulation to bring about cherished memories.
You can use any form of RT to help a loved one with dementia. It can be in a formal and structured setting, or it can be in a relaxed casual environment.
Here are some ideas you can introduce:
One- to- one
The simplest and easiest form of reminiscence therapy is to simply have a conversation.
Find out about their past, where they grew up, childhood, career. Ask open questions and take an interest in what they’re sharing with you.
Avoid questions that would require them to remember detail or specifics as this may confuse or put any unnecessary stress if they don’t know the answer. Instead, focus on the emotions linked to the story.
Allow them time to think, and allow for silence. Don’t force conversation.
Create a life storybook
Creating a life story can be a special time for you to bond and provide some wonderful reminiscence therapy for your loved one.
A life story book can be created with photographs, stories, and sentimental pieces such as birth certificates, newspaper clippings and even treasured birthday cards or letters.
This is a highly personalised activity that helps with memory reminiscence for your loved ones, but can also be kept and passed through the family too.
You can easily make a life story with a scrapbook, pen and paper, or even digitally through the use of apps.
Digital life story apps
Using an app to write your life story has many benefits. You can access it when you’re out and about with your loved one. This is important as it can bring familiarity and comfort to your loved one if they experience momentary stress and confusion while outside of the home. You can even include digital files, such as their favourite tv clips, videos from important moments in their life and pictures.
If you need more information on creating a digital life story, we’ve written a whole post dedicated to it here: Life Story App.
Record their life story with an interview
Recording a casual interview of your loved one is a great way to have a digital file of their life story.
Interviewing them on their life story is great for people living with mild to moderate dementia (if they are comfortable with it). But it could be particularly stressful or even impossible for people with late-stage dementia.
If you need ideas on what questions you can ask, check out this post here with over 50 questions to choose from.
Make a memory book with pictures
A memory book is a great tool for reminiscence therapy. As we’ve seen in the earlier examples, seeing familiar faces and places can be a successful memory triggering tool.
Listen to music from their past
Listening to nostalgic music is powerful to bring back positive memories. Try to work out which style of music was popular in their youth.
Use objects from their youth
Whether its food, drinks or kitchen utensils that aren’t popular today, bringing these items in can spark memories. From being in the kitchen, eating vintage sweets or even washing with a traditional bar of soap. If they recognise something, ask them the story behind the item and why was it special to them.
Watch TV clips from certain times in their life
As we noted in an earlier example, certain time periods had very popular movies and tv shows. So even sitting back to bring back nostalgia by watching over clips in a group setting or simply at home can be rewarding to them.
Memory Cafes are a fantastic way for people living with dementia to participate in RT within a group setting. You can even find memory cafes which are decorated traditionally and designed with old furniture, decoration, music and food served. This is like taking a step back in time, and the total immersion of the environment can be a particularly effective method of RT.
To find the nearest memory cafe for dementia near you, check out the link here.
Through understanding someone’s life story, caregivers can alter their communication and introduce activities to best suit the person in need. Using RT is a great way to get that understanding and bring to fruition all the benefits that go along with it.
Preserving memories through practising RT is a precious activity with benefits not only to the person living with dementia but their carers’ and families too. If you have someone close to you living with dementia, why not introduce the practice of reminiscence therapy at home. You’ll be helping your loved one in so many ways, and making their life more manageable and enjoyable and you may learn a thing or two about them in the process!