What’s Wrong with Seniors Clinging to their Memories?

By Bob Kohut

I was having a rare dinner out with one of my sons the other night when I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation going on between a very elderly woman and her adult son at the next table.

The sum and substance of it all was that the woman kept talking about memories of events in the distant past and her son kept encouraging her to focus on the future.

Although my own mother has passed on I am still heavily involved in supporting an elderly Uncle and Aunt of mine, and this conversation unearthed a haunting memory of my own.

My mother lived alone in her beloved condominium up to the end, and one day several years before she died I walked in for a visit and found her mounting pictures on the wall of her bedroom.

She must have been working at it for some time because the wall was nearly filled with old pictures of her as a child and her mother in Europe and me and my brothers as children and the house in which she group up as well as the house in which I grew up and on and on.

She was alert enough back then to comprehend the puzzled look on my face so she proceeded to tell me why she was doing what she was doing.

I can still see her face clearly in my mind as she told with a pleasant smile that the older she got the more she liked to relive her memories of times gone by.  Every morning when she awoke, she gazed over the wall and drifted off into a reverie of pleasant memories.

My gut reaction was the same as the son I recently overheard in the restaurant.  Why is she clinging to memories of the past instead of looking to the future?

I’ve read some interesting things lately that, in all honesty, make me more than a little ashamed at how I could harbor such a callous sentiment.  What future?  What mountains did she have left to conquer?  What new challenges did she have to look forward to?  What new careers to seek out?

The world teaches us that dwelling on the past at the expense of planning for the future is not a healthy thing to do.  But I had never thought much about what kind of future my mother or my now rapidly aging Uncle and Aunt see for themselves.

It seems to me one of the biggest problems those of us who find ourselves in senior caregiver roles have is the fact we have no experience of what it’s like to be old.  When we are raising our children we have our own experience base of how we were raised and how we felt about what was going on around us.

But we have no idea what it’s like to grow old and wake up one morning and realize you have no reason to get out of bed.

I’d like you to think about that if you have an elderly loved one who seems to be obsessed with living in the past.  Although I never got into an argument with my mother over her picture wall, I sincerely regret I never sat down with her and joined her in reliving some of those cherished moments we shared together in earlier days.

If you still have the chance, why not rummage through your own collection of old family photos and share them with your elderly loved ones?

7 Responses

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mike Gamble, steve Joyce. steve Joyce said: From EldercareABC-- What’s Wrong with Seniors Clinging to their Memories?: By Bob Kohut I was having a rare dinner... http://bit.ly/cjdCJe [...]
  2. I agree with your notion that there is nothing wrong at all with seniors reminiscing about some of the most happy times in their life, or otherwise. I think it is a beneficial practice both in the socialization and health aspects. First of all, sharing memories is like sharing experience, and the more of this we can gain without making the mistakes ourselves the better. I often enjoy listening to my grandfather talk about years past because he is a first hand witness to world events which I did not get to see. Second of all, neurology tells us that the brain areas which are active during memory formation are the same areas that light up during memory recall. So, from a medical perspective, when we remember we re-experience some of the same feelings which we felt during the creation of that memory. In this regard, it is great for seniors to recollect past events, for their benefit and ours. Do you agree? http://www.facebook.com/firststreetinc
  3. Elderly Medical Alert
    I agree - I think it's important to respect our aging parents desire to reminisce about the past. There is nothing wrong with it. They have rich sad happy memories which make up who they are. Seniors who have decreased mobility and even cognitive ability take pleasure in remembering their accomplishments, their experiences and their lives. Kevin
  4. You can tell most people are not even thinking about what he said and are just snapping at a percieved slight.thanks..
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  6. Thank you for the article, Bob. I have posted about it in my own blog and shared it on FB for other caregivers to read. I was encouraged by the idea of why the pictures are so important. Probably a "duh" moment for most people, but as a caregiver, sometimes we're so busy doing that we don't make the connection till later on. I appreciate being able to understand better now, when it helps Mama most. ~Joan, Caregiver at Home
  7. [...] What’s Wrong With Seniors Clinging to Their Memories? I’ve wrestled with how much to try to bring seniors focus back to the present, and this has some good thoughts. Of course, those who are saved have a glorious future to look forward to, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with walking down memory lane with someone who has more past than future on this earth. Might learn some things! [...]
  8. Bob, I had gone through the same journey as you did with your Mom, I came to the realization that the episodes were all about ME, and not about her and her memories. I wanted my mother to be with me in the moment, and never realizing at the time that she did not have the mental capabilities to engage with me. All I really wanted was for her to say my name, to acknowledge that I was with her. To make me feel less guilty. When I finally admitted to myself that she couldn't do it, I then became at ease with myself. Thanks for this, Marty
  9. I greatly value the good memories, and have even learned from the not so good ones. Travels ---which I can no longer do, missionary trips, experiences with my children, experiences in my nursing career--even though at 73 I am still part-time employed in home health. I find my kids are impatient with these memories. But, as you have said, I don't have much "future' on this earth left. However, I have a great future in eternity. And, I do look forward to that!!! But if you talk about that to others they become uncomfortable and think you are being morbid. Death is a reality and must be faced like any other earthly reality!