Reminiscing with Your Senior Loved Ones – It Works!


By Bob Kohut

Awhile back I posted a story about my mother and a “memory wall” she created using old family photographs.  She used the wall as a means of rekindling experiences of days gone by.  I shared my initial skepticism in that post as well as my surprise at how much it seemed to improve her mood.  I ended by suggesting that it might be worth a try for anyone responsible for the emotional care of an aging loved one.

I wish I had done more homework on that story, because a few days ago I stumbled across something that’s been around for some time, but I knew nothing about it.  It’s called Reminiscence Therapy, and according to some recently released research studies, it really can make a difference.

In 2010 the Department of Gerontology at Iowa State University published the results of a study of senior citizens in the Journal of Gerontology.  There were several interesting findings in the study and if you would like to read about them checkout this link.

Of course, considering my initial concern with my mother’s memory wall, what struck me about the study was the banner headline of one of their findings:

Remembering the Good Times is the Secret to Happiness for Oldest American Seniors

How about that?  Scientific verification of mom’s memory wall!  The researchers were so convinced of the validity of remembering the good times; they end the study with the firm recommendation to elderly caregivers to “implement programs like reminiscence therapy and structured life reviews to foster feelings of happiness amongst older senior citizens.”

I searched around a bit more and learned that Reminiscence Therapy has been around since the 1960’s, first advocated by psychiatrist Robert Butler as something he termed, the “life review.”  The idea that seniors approaching the end of their lives found comfort in reliving events of their past was consistent with the work psychoanalyst Erik Erikson was doing around the same era on the developmental stages of life.

I don’t want to debate the science but rather to again underscore an observation I have about the way many of us treat the elderly entrusted to our care.  I see far too many examples of adults responsible for the care of their parents trying desperately to get them to focus on a future the seniors just don’t see.  It’s a future we want for them, but not always one they want for themselves.

So if they get happiness reliving the past, why should we continue to fight it?  Why not do a little research on Reminiscence Therapy and put it to work?

You’ll learn themes you can use to engage your senior in a life review, like the Great Depression, or first cars, favorite radio programs, first dates, Christmas memories, childhood homes, favorite games, and pets they have owned over the years.  The list is limited only by your imagination.

You’ll learn how to build a “Reminiscence Kit” consisting of pretty much anything old – photos, memorabilia, clothing; even foods made from long forgotten recipes.

Doing this for you beloved older ones isn’t easy for some of us.  To do it, we have to abandon our efforts to change them into what we want them to be and instead accept them for what they are.


4 Responses

  1. Hey Bob, great post! I personally love to hear everything my grandfather has to say. Not only does it bring back happy memories as you said, but I often find good life lessons as well. Many people tend to take for granted the wealth of information and experiences we can gain by sitting and listening to our elders. Again, great topic.
  2. We surrounded my mther who had Alzheimer's with old photos, and frequently went through old albums with her, which prompted her to recall and reminisce. I don't know who honestly got more out of this: her or us. We treasure those moments now that she is no longer with us.
  3. So "talking about the good old days" actually helps you feel better. Makes sense to me. Seems that people are optimistic about their past and the impact they've had on others will have a better outlook on their life in their golden years.
  4. My wife and I spent quite a bit of time with her grandmother who had come over from the former Czechoslovakia through Ellis Island and joined her family working the orange groves of California. What great stories she had to tell and this post reminded me of that time of having a glass of red wine with her and some crusty bread while listening to her tales of adventure.

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