As people age, they often forget details and experiences. Some of this is intentional—a blocking out of bad feelings or memories from the past. Most times, however, it is unintentional and can be frustrating and emotional for the elderly person. As a sign that the body is inexorably aging, forgetfulness can cause stress, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and a host of other negative feelings.
One way to reduce these negative side effects of memory loss is to introduce reminiscence therapy, a simple way to guide seniors through their memories and feelings in order to increase their recall of particular times or events and to reassure them that their lives were good and full. In order to conduct the most productive reminiscence therapy, recorded memorabilia and found objects are used to inspire reflection.
At its core, reminiscence therapy is about reminding, reflecting, and moving on. Everyone’s life features ups and downs, and remembering those times and addressing the emotions they cause is a helpful way for seniors to find peace with their lives as they age. Professionals often use this type of therapy, but it can also be used more casually in the home or on family visits.
To truly tap into feelings and memories long past, family caregivers may bring along items that serve to remind the loved one of times gone by. For example, a wedding photo album may be coupled with open-ended questions about the people in the photos or the times surrounding the wedding. This will activate information in the elderly person’s mind, helping his or her brain to piece together parts of a puzzle that may have scattered somewhat due to age.
What Is Useful as Recorded Memorabilia?
Any objects which inspire reminiscence can be used as recorded memorabilia. This could be photographs, music, or even food. Once these objects are placed in front of the elderly loved one, the caregiver should then ask open-ended questions, such as, “When did you eat this food as a child?” “You’ve always loved this song—why?” or “Who is in this picdementure and where are you guys?” The family caregiver should then allow time for the elderly loved one to share stories and feelings from the past.
An important thing to remember is that emotions evoked by memorabilia may be unpredictable. Many seniors still alive today come from a world and a culture where a discussion of one’s feelings may not have been considered appropriate. Given that situation, they may have many buried emotions that they only now feel safe to share. Be prepared for sadness, anger, joy, or even frustration, and be prepared to support and validate those feelings.
How to Validate
It is important for loving family members never to correct or contradict the feelings of an elderly loved one. Emotions may seem irrational or inappropriate, but in order for the person to come to terms with feelings, he or she must be allowed the space to be honest and vulnerable.
It is best for loving family members or caregivers to control their own emotional reactions so as not to frighten or intimidate elderly loved ones. The caregiver may get angry or upset, but the important feelings at the moment are the feelings of the elderly loved one. The family caregiver must find a way to express responses in such as way as to not silence the reminiscences of an elderly loved one.
It is best to use validating phrases, such as “I understand,” “That makes sense to me,” and “That must have been difficult for you.” These are all examples of how to sympathize with an elderly loved one’s feelings and to let him or her feel heard and understood.
Adding more questions and stopping other tasks to pay attention will help show and elderly loved one how important he or she is. Instead of chatting while washing dishes or shopping, allow this kind of conversation to happen when there are no distractions.
Reaching a Larger Audience
Those who love public radio may be familiar with the idea of sharing stories more widely than just with family or a circle of friends. Finding a way to literally record a loved one’s story as a podcast, video, or blog may be a way for the person to share a connection with others. It becomes a living document, one that can be shared and responded to thousands of miles away. This, in turn, means the elderly person will get responses from afar—comments on a Facebook feed, downloads of a podcast, or tweets answering a question on video. This is a wonderful time to ask big questions, such as “How should neighbors treat each other? How did your neighbors treat you growing up?” or “What is the best way to raise a child?” This kind of sharing is sometimes missing in our world, especially with families living far from each other. If an elderly loved one does not mind sharing experiences of the past with strangers, he or she may find a certain comfort in knowing that his or her stories and wisdom from life have become truly recorded memorabilia to be enjoyed and learned from for decades.
Clarke, Stephanie. Reminiscence Therapy. Seniorsmatter.com. Available at http://www.seniorsmatter.com/senior-living/reminiscence-therapy/. Retrieved April 1, 2016.
Klever, Sandy. (April 2013). Reminiscence therapy: Finding meaning in memories. Nursing, 43(4): 36-37. Doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000427988.23941.51. Available online at: http://journals.lww.com/nursing/Fulltext/2013/04000/Reminiscence_therapy__Finding_meaning_in_memories.11.aspx. Retrieved April 1, 2016.
StoryCorps.org. StoryCorps: Memory Loss Initiative. Available at https://storycorps.org/memory-loss/. Retrieved April 1, 2016.