Nostalgic Environments Can Soothe Dementia Behavior

Nostalgic environment in memory care

One method that has received much attention in the treatment of Alzheimer’s behaviors in recent years is the utilization of nostalgic environments. That is a using sounds, scenes, props and music from the person’s past, to evoke a feeling of nostalgia.  These environments have been shown to soothe some of the dementia behaviors.

Nostalgia, is defined by Merriam Webster as a noun referring to a feeling.  “Nostalgia: “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.  Also, something that evokes nostalgia.”

Alzheimer’s Disease, a degenerative brain disease that affects about three million persons annually in the United States, is something that many seniors and family members fear. Patients with this type of dementia report the loss of memory and a general decline in cognitive and mental brain function. It can be a devastating disease for them and their families. Researchers have spent considerable time and resources in the past 50 years studying its impact on the human brain.

In recent years, researchers have developed new medications to try to lessen the likelihood of dementia and to combat the symptoms when they first arise. However, medication does not totally halt or cure the disease so it will progress over time leading to the inability to remember people, places of things with clarity.

When this happens caregivers and other professionals search for ways to stay in touch with their loved ones for as long as possible to generate a better quality of life for both the senior and the caregiver. But as the disease progresses, the memories fade and the person seems to retreat from present realities. That is where the use of nostalgia comes in.  Nostalgic environments have been shown to engage seniors with Alzheimer’s and is being utilized in the design of memory care communities.

According to a study  published in 1994 by Marie A. Mills CSS, RES. DIP., and Peter G. Coleman, Ph.D. MA, C. Psychology, “emotional autobiographical memories of past events can be stimulated through the individual use of reminiscence and counseling skills.”

Mills and Coleman were among the first researchers to study closely how nostalgia can help soothe some symptoms of dementia and, in some cases, even help patients suffering from memory loss to regain some of the cognition they thought may be gone forever.

Scientists have utilized several methods to evoke memories through nostalgia in patients suffering from memory loss . Because visual and auditory senses are among the strongest, experts tend to start there when seeking to evoke memories. Some memory care programs offer a type of “nostalgia suitcase” to new patients. These include such things as old footballs, wartime pamphlets and bars of soap that were popular during the time when a patient was coming of age.

It may sound far-fetched to those who have not experienced a loved one with memory loss, but for those who have cared for a declining Alzheimer’s loved one, it is completely accepted.  When Alzheimer’s attacks and the person begins to lose their sense of self as this vicious disease impacts their brain, nostalgia can be a source of relief. If a senior suffers from dementia without receiving any of these treatments designed to stimulate their memory, experts see them falling into patterns of isolation and depression. When someone feels as if they don’t belong largely because of not being able to remember why they belong, it’s easy to understand why their mood might be affected because of it.

Another method of nostalgic environments that professionals try with patients dealing with memory loss is by decorating their living spaces with things that they may remember. Just because one may not have access to family heirlooms or photographs, placing photographs before the person of popular celebrities or well-known pieces of art from a certain time may be just as effective.

Seniors report higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of memory loss when music with which they are familiar comes on in their home. Music by The Beatles or Frank Sinatra, for example, has proven to help aging seniors lessen the effects of dementia because they brought back to a specific, positive period of their lives when those stars dominated the airwaves.

Nostalgia may not eliminate some of the depression and isolation that a senior feels when they begin to have serious memory lapses.  Other techniques, such as  simple, calm conversation can be all it takes to get them to break out of their shell. Remember, people dealing with this disease often feel confused and alone. By remaining calm, peaceful and pleasant, caregivers can do a great job by bringing up nostalgic events in their own history and history in general to relate to someone who doesn’t quite know all that is happening now.

If you are caring for a loved one with memory loss try these suggestions for using nostalgia.

  1. Expect better results using nostalgia that they can relate to. For example, if music has not been a part of their life but they love baseball, try putting on an old baseball game recording or video from YouTube.
  2. Don’t expect the nostalgia to work every day. Probably the most frustrating part of dementia is its unpredictability.  Have multiple methods to use to sooth behaviors.
  3. Keep it simple. Nothing is more frustrating to someone with dementia than an activity that is too complicated.
  4. The nostalgia that you may arrange may go unnoticed for a while. Refer to it informally without pushing it on your loved one.

We would love to hear your experiences on how you have used nostalgia to help sooth dementia behaviors.  Leave us a note in the comments.

Read about “How to Win Dementia Patients’ Cooperation”.