All people reminisce. Remembering times past is a pleasant diversion, stimulates the mind, and helps give us perspective and a sense of who we are. As a study from the Association for Psychological Science stated, “Nostalgia is now emerging as a fundamental human strength.”
Reminiscing, the process of “life review,” is an important part of old age. As seniors recall their accomplishments and come to terms with past conflicts and disappointments, they achieve a heightened sense of personal identity and meaning in life.
Reminiscing also enhances self-esteem. Studies suggest that seniors who are encouraged to share events from their lives with others experience an increased sense of peace and self-worth. We all have a lifelong need to see ourselves as unique individuals, and the recollection of pleasant experiences, past accomplishments, and triumphs over adversity is part of this.
Reminiscing can be an important tool for socialization. Think about what happens whenyou first make a friend: you spend much time “filling each other in” on your life history—who you are and have been, where you have lived, who is important in your life. When a senior moves to a nursing home or assisted living community or begins to receive care in the home, sharing memories is a great way for staff to get to know the person better by learning about their life stories and accomplishments.
Reminiscing can be especially important for cognitively impaired persons. Those with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia can often recall long-past occasions better than the events of the current day, since the disease affects long-term less than short-term memory. Interactions that include the recollection of events past can have a positive effect on the dementia patient’s emotional well-being.
Why Does My Loved One Repeat the Same Stories?
Sometimes family members and friends are concerned if an older loved one repeats stories, returning to the same ones again and again. But recognize that this, too, is part of the life review process: the repeated stories are probably those that the person finds the most pleasant to recall, or they may concern events that he or she is “working through.” Remember that a response from you is not necessarily required; your loved one may just need you to listen in a non-judgmental manner.
Sometimes an older adult may seem to dwell upon life experiences that cause sadness, anger or frustration. Understand that this, too, is a way of dealing with the past and can be a sign of emotional health. Allow these feelings to come out, and don’t try to suppress such expressions by immediately attempting to cheer up or distract your loved one. But if he or she seems “stuck” in a particular disturbing experience or time, encourage your loved one to speak to the healthcare provider.
Older adults are a treasury of stored experience. Life review and discussing “the good old days” is a beneficial, purposeful activity that helps older adults maintain a positive outlook. The Association for Psychological Science explains, “Nostalgia may provide a link between our past and present selves—that is, nostalgia may provide us with a positive view of the past and this could help to give us a greater sense of continuity and meaning to our lives.”
Encouraging the Sharing of Memories
If reminiscing seems beneficial for your loved one, here are some techniques that eldercare mental health specialists recommend for starting a conversation revolving around the recalling of the past:
Try a multisensory approach, using “jump starts” such as photographs, music, smells, and things to be touched.
Ask questions beginning with “Tell me about the time….” Encourage your loved one to talk about his or her childhood, school days, courtship, experiences during the Depression and wartime years, and other important life events.
Help your loved one write or record his or her autobiography. This is a meaningful task that provides the satisfaction of knowing that the two of you are producing a record that will be valued by generations to come. For some useful tips on creating a record of life experiences, visit the StoryCorps website (www.storycorps.net).