Older people often lose what has defined them: family, spouses, friends, careers, and their homes. They need to remember who they were to help define who they are today. Life review offers a chance to re-examine one’s life, pursue remote memories, recall past events and accomplishments, and seek personal validation.
Remembering the past can bring a new awareness to the present. Memories can be explored in many creative ways that place value on a person’s unique life experience. It can be very helpful at the right moment to say to someone, “Tell me about your childhood,” or ask, “What was it like growing up during the Depression?”
Triggers are often used to evoke a memory and are especially useful when working with people who have dementia. The best triggers are those that stimulate our five senses: taste (grandmother’s recipes), smell (aroma of fresh baked bread), touch (textures), sound (music) and sight (photographs).
“Memories are treasures that keep our hearts warm.”
Creative memory-making brings memories back to life and can be achieved in a number of ways. Some of the most effective ideas are:
- photo albums/collages, scrapbooks
- art forms (drawing, painting or using clay can be a replacement for words)
- historical items and significant objects (toys, antiques, or clothing)
- drama (acting out short scenes that invite the role playing of past experiences)
- vocal and instrumental music (can lead to memory recall)
- life story work (recorded oral histories about childhood and early life)
- memory boxes (a three-dimensional box that displays personal items to signify one’s life and highlight memories)
“Every man’s memory is his private literature.”
Encouraging reminiscence can offer a number of benefits. It provides companionship and helps to overcome the problem of boredom or loneliness. It improves self-esteem and helps a person to feel recognized as an individual.
Although no formal qualifications are required to do reminiscence work, the following skills are beneficial, especially with people with dementia:
- Ask open-ended questions that will elicit the sharing of personal stories and experiences
- Listen attentively and show an interest in the past memories that are shared
- Retain what you have heard and make reflective comments
- Empathize and relate in a sensitive way, especially when painful emotions are expressed
- Stimulate the senses and respond positively to both verbal and non-verbal attempts to communicate
“Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”
There is a tendency to think of dementia as a “disaster,” a hopeless decline in a person’s memory and a loss of functioning about which nothing can be done. Yet, people with dementia often have a keen ability to recall long-term, personal memories when the details of the present may escape them.
“We do not remember days; we remember moments.”
Those who face life-threatening illnesses often feel an increased need to explore the meaning of their lives and identify what has been important.
“I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there.”
Reminiscence allows one’s thoughts and memories to be stimulated and gives a sense of continuity to the “remembered life.” Reviewing our lives and telling our stories leaves us with a sense of contentment with life and truly links our past to the present and one generation to another.
Lois Young-Tulin, PhD, is an Assistant Geriatric Care Manager at Complete Care Strategies