For both the elderly and their caregivers, the ailments and struggles that come with aging shadow a more carefree, happy past. We’re busy focusing on medication management, installing new handles in the shower or researching assisted living facilities. As dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other cognitive issues strengthen their grip on a loved one, many feel as if they’re losing that person they once knew. A similar identity crisis may be going on inside for them, as well.
For many residents of assisted living or seniors at home with caregivers, reminiscence therapy has proven to be a beneficial activity on many levels. Reminiscence therapy, recalling events from the past using the senses–objects to touch and hold, smell, hear, and taste–can range from the simple act of conversation in your loved one’s home to a certified therapist using props and clinical methods to help an Alzheimer’s patient retrieve long-ago memories.
The benefits of reminiscence therapy in assisted living facilities or at home with a caregiver can be long-reaching. In a study involving 144 elders, it was found that during activities involving reminiscing, seniors reported an improvement in mood, stress levels, and cognition.
Elders often become isolated from their identities as their memories begin to falter, and as the day-to-day issues of living overwhelm the past. Often, when you watch someone re-tell a story, you watch them come alive with memory and emotion. Research has shown new pathways in the brain form as a patient remembers the past. Establishing a way to connect with long-ago memories can help re-tie that rope to familiarity. Other benefits include:
- Increased ability to communicate
- Relief from boredom or a distraction from day-to-day problems
- Reestablish life meaning for a person through connection to the past and reassert that person’s feeling of importance
- Increased self-worth and sense of belonging in the world
- Preserve stories and memories for future generations
Helping Your Loved One Recall Memories from the Past
Many who suffer from Alzheimer’s or who have other memory loss issues (you can read more about what causes memory loss) can’t remember simple things from the recent past, like what they had for breakfast, who came to visit the other day, or the name of their granddaughter’s husband. But memories from early childhood and young adulthood may come readily with a little prompting. Methods to get your loved one talking include storytelling–you start a known family story and prompt him or her to finish the story–or simply start by asking questions. You can spend a few minutes with them asking questions, and you can record the conversations to help them remember their answers later and enjoy the sound and image of the conversation if speaking becomes more difficult during the progression of their dementia.
Below are some good conversation starters:
- The cost of items in the 1950s — for example, a man’s suit was $28, a Chevrolet ‘58 Corvette was $3,600, and a stunning 1-carat diamond ring was less than $400
- Check out this rated list from iMDb to help find the names of your loved one’s favorite TV show or movie from the past that you can talk about, and search YouTube for episodes
- Where were you when…? When Kennedy was assassinated, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, when the Russians launched Sputnik, are all great conversation starters
- What was your first job?
- Talk about your favorite trip or travels- this is the perfect time to pull out the scrapbook or Facebook page full of digital memories
- Find a knick-knack, old photograph, or other items in the attic or off the shelf and ask about its history
Other tools include scrapbooking software that allows you to scan and arrange photos into memory books to prompt discussion, books about memorable events in history, and the Senior Moments Game, a board game that helps–in a fun way–to prompt memories.
Keep Gender Differences in Mind for Reminiscence Activities
While you may love baking and gardening with all of your older relatives, studies show that even older men typically prefer activities outside of the home. In a recent survey, 755 random older residents of various urban and rural cities were approached and asked a series of questions regarding the leisure activities that they enjoy. This study showed that of the respondents, 86% of women preferred things that supported the community, children, and seniors. Men overwhelmingly preferred to participate in activities involving sports (77%), in addition to supporting elders (94%), suggesting that the two sexes may not benefit from the same types of activities.
Men may have a difficult time finding standard nursing home-style activities engaging. While anyone can benefit from a good day program, research into the differences in behavior between the genders in care homes shows that women tend to take on a caregiver role, even in conversation, prioritizing the needs of other speakers instead of focusing on their own stories when opportunities to be supportive arose. This leads to fulfilling conversations that the women in groups tend to thrive on.
Men, however, typically take on a leadership and active role, even in groups, instead of a conversational one. Nursing home and day center studies that include pedometers back up these findings, showing that men walk 19.6% more than women, and reach a level of moderate to high physical activity 73.5% more often. Of course, it isn’t always the case that men are more active, but it’s important to consider these tendencies.
After learning about general social patterns in the residents of care homes, it makes sense that around the country, retired men’s clubs have sprung up that focus on community service in an active way. Men’s Sheds projects have sprung up across the country, providing ongoing volunteer opportunities for older men in the form of woodworking and other hands-on projects. Often working with groups like the Boy Scouts, these clubs spend their time together identifying needs in the community by interacting with local groups, design projects that can solve a problem, and help other members of the community build and create what is needed.
Not only does this philosophy foster a sense of independence and self-empowerment, but staying active is incredibly important to longevity. If your aging loved one is not up to all of the chores associated with crafting a complicated project, you can think outside of the box to find creative ways to bring the woodshop into your home, at a manageable level for your loved one that might be facing vision, hand-eye coordination, and mobility issues can still enjoy. You can try one of these easy at-home DIY projects, perfect for a lazy afternoon with your older friend:
- Try a simple painting project. Just get a small can of stain and any wooden object you want to spruce up, a couple of foam brushes, and get going.
- Buy a wood project kit with several simple projects for people of all abilities. Help your loved one with anything like hammering that could injure them if they have stability issues, and don’t forget to buy some acrylic paint or paint markers for less-mess abstract fun
- Elders with dementia can benefit from having an activity board or fidget pillow, with tasks like a series of locks, zippers, and pockets to explore that those with short-term memory loss will enjoy again and again.
Many assisted living facilities offer some type of formal memory therapy programs. If you’re seeking assisted living or in-home care for your loved one, ask about what established reminiscence therapy programs they might have available.
Benefits of Reminiscence Therapy for Caregivers
Compassion fatigue occurs when a caregiver spends too much time taking care of other people, and not enough time tending to their own needs. Further research into caregiver depression shows that informal caregivers experience higher levels of stress and are at a 63% higher risk of mortality than their non-caregiving peers. It’s clear that caregivers love their aging relatives, but the toll of caring for an adult is heavy and many caregivers suffer under the burden- the opposite of what their aging loved ones want.
On top of psychosocial health, caregivers suffer from physical inactivity just like their elders, having no time leftover to focus on fitness. Perhaps you can find a way to reminisce with your elder in a way that physically engages you both, without having to leave home; for example, by trying an old exercise video that may remind your loved one of their younger years. Another option is to try sites like YouTube, which has tons of walking tours of places your loved one may have visited or has always wanted to visit. You can stimulate the feeling of walking through your favorite destinations in this way, though going outside and actually visiting a beloved spot would be the best option when possible.
Among the many ways to bond over the past with loved ones, a great strategy that family caregivers can develop is that of sharing activities that the family enjoyed as a group in the past. This is a wonderfully therapeutic activity for elders, helping them connect old and recent memories with visual aids, but it is one that can grow boring overtime for caregivers. To spice it up, try rekindling an old passion that you once shared with your aging loved one.
When the goal is to get your aging loved one to remember the fun they used to have, try giving them an experience that helps bring back all the things that they loved about that time. Whether you and your loved one have always been interested in literature and you would like to find a book club to enjoy with your older friend, or you both love gardening and you want to help your elder share their gardening experience with other enthusiasts in a garden club, you can find fresh, shared joy in hobbies while helping your loved one remember their favorite parts of their life.