Reminisce is a strange word. It is not a word I had used a lot in my life, possibly ever, before I started working on resources for people with dementia. My husband, Jonathan, will come home from the dementia home he works in and a lot of what he has done during the day involves reminiscing with people.
What does "to reminisce" mean?
Very simply reminiscing is recalling memories of your life from the past. This is something you can start to do from around ten years old. Obviously at ten you don’t look back on many years, but as you get older you collect more and more experiences, stories and memories from your past.
Pretty much everyone reminisces. My friends and I reminisce from time to time, not that we would ever call it that. Generally I would call it repeating the things we can remember each other doing in years gone by. We are pretty good at recalling each other's funny or foolish moments. Christmas is often a time people get to reminisce with family.
Why is reminiscing good for people living with dementia?
Typically someone with dementia will be able to recall things from many years ago more easily than more recent events, so reminiscing is something they will naturally prefer to do. Reminiscing is going to give a person with dementia more confidence in conversation than having to rely on their limited short-term memory.
Many memories are going to be happy and nostalgic, these invoke good feelings and can lift the mood of one who may otherwise be finding life a bit of a challenge.
On occasion some memories will not be so happy. But being able to express emotions even if they are not so positive is not necessarily a bad thing. It is important that the listener is able to be sensitive to the person's feelings and ensure they feel heard.
Living with dementia can place limits on what somebody may be able to do. They may need to be helped with many day to day activities and routines. They may need someone to constantly remind them what is happening and what needs to be done. An individual in this position does not feel they are in control of their own lives. For someone in this situation, being able to share a story about their past and having that story listened to and appreciated is a wonderful opportunity for them to be able to feel they are contributing. It is also a confidence boosting way in which the person can assume the role of the one doing the talking.
Reminiscing and especially sharing nostalgic stories of past experiences is a way for people to reassure themselves that their lives have value and meaning. Looking back and recalling what made life worthwhile can have a huge influence on someone's present day mood, especially if holding onto more recent memories is difficult.
Why reminiscing may sometimes have bad connotations?
In the past there has been a bit of a negative vibe with reminiscing. Some may consider it living in, or idolising the past rather than appreciating today. But our life story makes us who we are and in the case of dementia or brain injury holding on to those long term memories is extremely beneficial.
Naturally someone who is elderly and unwell will look to the past as a better time and that is perfectly reasonable.
Something to keep in mind when you are reminiscing with a person with memory issues is that they may not remember things you think they should, or they may remember events differently than they actually occurred. It is not helpful to correct someone who gives the facts incorrectly, or who thinks their situation is not as it actually is. You may like to look at a previous blog: "Help Fill the Gaps for Someone with Memory Loss."
It is always going to be harder to reminisce if you are talking with a family member who doesn't remember past events that are important to you and you feel were important to them also. Try to be patient and positive and to redirect conversations rather than berating or correcting.
Reminiscing or ruminating?
There is a difference between reminiscing and ruminating. When someone ruminates they are in a negative state of mind where they are worrying and replaying a bad situation or memory over and over in their head. This sort of thinking should not be encouraged as it can lead to anxiety and depression. A person who is in this state of mind needs to be distracted and helped to change their focus.
Aiding someone living with dementia
Sometimes people with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, may be able to reminisce in a group. But often, and especially in the more advanced stages of dementia, a one-on-one approach will work better.
Let's be honest, we all enjoy looking back to where we came
from and the road we have traveled, from time to time. This isn't a bad
thing, recalling shared experiences helps strengthen bonds between
people. Sharing your personal history means it can live on, and these
aren't just names and dates in a history book, they are the really
And for those whose day to day life and conversations are now limited, looking back and sharing their life stories really is a unique and precious gift, for all of us.
Many of our resources on Mindjig are useful for promoting reminiscing.
One product Jonathan enjoys as a way of starting conversation with his residents is The Art of Conversation ($24.99). Each card in the pack has three questions on it to start people talking e.g. What colour was your first car or Where was your most favourite holiday? There are 300 questions in the pack, so you are sure to find a subject to suit.
When I was young I loved listening to my great-grandmother talk about the olden days. She did not have dementia, but I remember having difficulty thinking of ways to get her talking. Possibly she felt she shouldn't be talking about the past. These cards would have been a great help.
Sometimes a person with dementia may find it a bit confronting to be asked a question directly, so these cards can be an aid for you to give your own experience and spark their remembrances.