What is Reminiscence Therapy?
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Reminiscence therapy for people living with dementia may seem contradictory at first. After all, forgetfulness is the most well-known symptom of dementia. How can someone with memory loss benefit from being asked to remember something? The answer - with a little support from loved ones and the environment.

Reminiscence therapy is focused on revisiting memories. It involves discussion of past events and experiences, often using tangible prompts to evoke memories or stimulate conversation. These discussion-prompts may include a song, photo album, favorite food, movie, anything. It is as simple as that.

Reminiscence therapy is a great way to bring out those long-term memories. It has proven helpful for people living with both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If you’re caring for a loved one with dementia, reminiscence therapy can help open up communication and resurface positive emotions

How Does Reminiscence Therapy Benefit Those with Dementia?

Reminiscence therapy can increase the quality of life, communication, mental health, and cognition for seniors. Reminiscence therapy is a line of first defense before resorting to medication.

“One of the recent dementia practice guidelines recommended that ... reminiscence therapy be initially applied to manage mood symptoms. We expect that this guideline and the findings from this current study will encourage staffs in long-term care settings to develop and apply reminiscence therapy as a clinically appropriate method to decrease depression ... for PWDs.[people with dementia]” Explains Park et al.

That is to say, before trying medication try reminiscence therapy!

Side note: Before we go into why reminiscence therapy works, a word on one of the things it helps with, BPSD. So-called behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. Dr. Al Power and other advocates have asked for us to stop using this blanket term. It turns normal feelings, sadness, anger, frustration into medical symptoms. Seeing ‘BPSD’ s an expression of an unmet need allows us to meet that need rather than medicate away its expression. For more on this, read about validation therapy.

Why does it work? We do not know for sure.

Reminiscence therapy makes sense. When we reminisce, we can remember and share who we are, where we have been. We can express what we need and have it seen. This experience helps anyone feel more connected. Some studies also showed benefits for people not living with dementia.

Tips for Using Reminiscence Therapy with a Loved One

Okay, so how do you incorporate reminiscence therapy into your loved one’s dementia care plan? Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. It is not a test.

The goal is not for your loved one to have perfect memories of all life events. The goal is to engage your loved one with dementia to remember and share whatever they want to or can. Even folks without any cognitive change will not remember the same event the same way. Try not to get hung up on what you think is accurate or not accurate otherwise you can quickly become frustrated.

2. It is about feelings.

This is part two of ‘it is not a test.’ Rather than focusing on the facts, feel the emotional message behind what is said and reliving happy memories.

For example, the other day, my grandmother told me a story about a present from my grandfather. She said he gave it to her right before my wedding. She remembered being very upset about the marriage. So, he gave her an early birthday present to cheer her up.

In my memory, my grandfather died years before my wedding, and my wedding was not near her birthday. That, however, was not important at the moment. Pointing it out would have embarrassed her. I am sure it would have resulted in a screaming match and many hurt feelings. We would never have gotten to the underlying feeling of the story. The feeling of missing my grandfather dearly. It felt good for her to remember he loved her by showing me objects he had given her. It is not a test. The goal is engagement, not perfect recall.

3. Use all five senses.

Reminiscence therapy requires a prompted discussion. To start a conversation with your family member - think of the five senses.

  • Watch movies or look at art and old photographs together. Listen to music, sounds of a certain landscape, a radio show, recorded voices of loved ones. These can all be great ways to connect with a loved one with dementia
  • What can you smell together? Flowers, baking, cooking, essential oils.
  • Try food from special moments in life like comfort food and favorite home-cooked meals
  • Use your touch! Simple things like a hand-knit blanket, cold fresh snow, or sand between your toes (even if in a bowl in your living room) can bring back memories.

4. Embrace technology.

At the click of a button, you can watch major historical events or past TV shows. Use YouTube to find past events, use google maps to walk past streets, use a shared family album to share photos and videos.

Reminiscence therapy is a simple concept that has had positive effects on many older adults. Use everyday objects or personal ones to spark conversation. Follow that conversation wherever it leads, focusing on connection rather than historical accuracy. The goal of reminiscence therapy

Pro tip: If you need help, the rules of improv can support communication through dementia. Connecting in this way is proven to increase the quality of life for you and your loved one.


Reminiscence therapy for dementia: an abridged Cochrane systematic review of the evidence from randomized controlled trials

A systematic review and meta-analysis on the effect of reminiscence therapy for people with dementia

Medicalization of Feelings: BPSD or BPSOD?

How Validation Therapy can Increase Empathy to those Living with Dementia

"Yes, And" ... Improv Can Help You Have More Good Days With Dementia

5 Tips for Using Music in Dementia Care

About the Author(s)

Kyrié is a radically age and dementia positive coach and thinker. Her passion for story led her to a career in film, studies in Depth Psychology, and ultimately her work with aging. Kyrié calls herself a crone in-training because she believes our world needs elders and we need to train to become them. She is a book author and blog contributor for multiple platforms.

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