“Each time an individual tells part of his/her life story, those who listen are like a mirror, reflecting and affirming their lives.” – John Kurtz, founder, International Institute of Reminiscence and Life Review.

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?”


Ways to Initiate Reminiscence

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, touch, smell, hearing (music) and sight (photographs). Movements such as those associated with previous work experiences, dance or family rituals can also bring back memories. Reminiscence themes and activities can provide opportunities for social interaction around shared experiences. Examples of themes may include: the childhood home and family, life on the farm, school days, games/activities, fishing and hunting, courtship and marriage, jobs, war years, holiday celebrations and festivals.

Go Creative

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 or autobiographies)
  • memory boxes (a 3-dimensional box that displays personal items which signify one’s life and highlight memories)

All of these creations can generate conversations, valuable recollections and outcomes for the family and the generations that follow.

Listen…Then Interact

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 memories are expressed
  • Stimulate the senses and respond positively to both verbal and non-verbal attempts to communicate


Reminiscence and Dementia

People with dementia often have a keen ability to recall long-term, personal memories when the details of the present may escape them. While living with dementia can be very isolating and lead to withdrawal, especially from social settings, becoming part of a reminiscence group can be one solution.


Reminiscence and Counseling

It is believed that reminiscence can foster personal growth and lead to positive outcomes while the healing of painful memories can occur in the context of a trusting relationship, such as in counseling. Reminiscence therapy can increase self-assuredness as a person is reminded that he overcame previous difficulties and challenges.


Reminiscence and the End of Life

Those who face life-threatening illnesses often feel an increased need to explore the meaning of their lives and identify what has been important. As we approach the end of our days, we need to bring together the strands of our lives.

As Viktor Frankl, Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, said, “All of us need to leave knowing the things we’ve done, the things we’ve loved, the things we will leave behind with meaning, and the things we’ve believed in.”


Telling Your Story

In the end, the most important thing we need when we die is to have a significant life story. 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.


About the Author

Lois Young-Tulin, PhD, is an Assistant Geriatric Care Manager at Complete Care Strategies