All About “Reminiscence Therapy”

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Reminiscence Therapy (RT) is a treatment that uses all the senses to help individuals remember things from their past.

It incorporates sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound to encourage remembering events, people, and places from days gone by. Objects may also be used to help with recall.

While Reminiscence Therapy has been used particularly to help people living with dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases, anyone can use RT.

Often times for people with Alzheimer’s and forms of dementia, short-term or recent memories are the first to deteriorate. Through sharing from the past or long-term memories, people can develop more positive feelings, with a reduction in stress and agitation. This can allow a person to gain confidence in their abilities and provide them with the opportunity to talk about what is important to them. It can also provide relief from boredom and depression, while potentially preserving family stories for future generations.

How does Reminiscence therapy work?

Reminiscence therapy uses prompts to encourage a person to recall past memories.

Reminiscing is not the same as simply remembering. Asking someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s to remember something specific can make them feel pressured, stressed, or put on the spot. They may not be able to clearly think of the things they are being asked to remember. Reminiscing allows them to share as they choose and as memories come to them. RT does not focus on correcting every detail for accuracy, but encourages a person to be able to open up and share.

For example, it can be stressful for some people to feel put on the spot with a question such as, “Do you remember the house where you grew up?”

If they do not remember the exact house or do not understand exactly what they believe you are asking them to think of, they may become embarrassed or stop answering altogether.

However, if a person is looking at old photos and sees a picture of his childhood home, he might be able to generate a story on his own of something that he recalls happening there. Additionally, he might be able to share more information, if someone else is able to start sharing memories related to the picture such as, “There was a family house on Oak Street. I believe there was a bedroom at the top of the stairs. I have heard that two brothers shared that room. There were two twin beds and a dresser there. The boys used to sit on the floor and sort baseball cards…” 

Even without having photos, sharing stories may bring other memories to mind.

One person may recount, “When I was a child, we had a huge tree in our back yard. I used to spend hours there. Sometimes I would climb it to get away from my little sister. Some days I liked to climb in the branches, sit, and read a book…” By hearing this, another person may think of their own childhood or experience climbing trees. This way of reminiscing is less threatening and allows a person living with Alzheimer’s or dementia to just listen or have more time, in a less stressful manner, to recall their own stories.

Reminiscing may often be done with minimal prompting, such as by including simple (not compound) questions, allowing the person to somewhat guide the conversation.

    • RT can be enhanced by looking at photos, keepsakes, or old newspaper or magazine articles.
    • Playing songs or clips from a movie or show that hold meaning to a person may jog their memory.
    • A familiar scent or taste, such as through a person eating their favorite childhood recipe or smelling a loved one’s perfume, may allow them to journey back in time.
    • Touching and feeling objects, such as a leaf or pine cone, a piece of fabric, or a marble, can encourage them to recall a time they interacted with similar objects in the past.
    • Doing tactile activities that they have enjoyed when younger, such as painting, building models, or doing other crafts may make them recall past events.

Part of the idea is to allow a person to reminisce in a non-threatening way and without being overwhelmed. This may mean one day looking at a photograph to talk about the past. At another time play a favorite song from their youth. Then on another day share a favorite food and story (Such as while drinking milkshakes saying, “I sure love strawberry milkshakes. When I was a little girl, we would go to the soda fountain. I always loved strawberry, and my sister, Sue, always wanted chocolate. Do you like strawberry or chocolate better?…”).

Try to keep sentences and questions shorter. If asking a question, keep it simple or provide two short options to choose from. Try to stay positive and allow the person to feel confidence in sharing what they choose to share.

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