Dementia – how your loved one’s past can help them in the present

Head of Research and Clinical Development at Bupa UK
16 May 2017

If your loved one has dementia, knowing what you can do to help can be hard. Your loved one may be struggling with their short-term memory, but might also find it hard to take on new information. Their emotional wellbeing can be affected and going about their daily lives as they used to will become more difficult.

Here I look at how tapping into your loved one’s past might help them in the present. This is known as reminiscence therapy.

Two elderly women reading the paper

What is reminiscence therapy?

To reminisce means to ‘indulge in enjoyable recollection of past events’ and it’s this that forms the basis of reminiscence therapy. Reminiscence therapy involves engaging your loved one in discussions around events, activities and experiences from their past, with the help of a few prompts. These prompts might include old photographs, music or familiar items from when they were younger.

What’s the aim?

For someone with dementia, the world can be a confusing place. At times, the past might often be more familiar to them than the present. Reminiscence therapy aims to help your loved one feel more comfortable and confident in the present by helping them connect with familiar experiences from their past.

How is it done?

Reminiscence therapy can be done in a group or on an individual level. Sessions are usually led by someone with a background or training in reminiscence therapy and might be carried out weekly. How many sessions your loved one will have and how long each session will be can vary.

Can I use the principles of reminiscence therapy to help my loved one?

I think there’s a lot to be said for the power of conversation and social interaction in improving people’s overall sense of wellbeing. When someone greets you in the morning or stops to ask about your day, there’s no denying that the interaction can leave you feeling more engaged and in some respects more valued. I believe that using past memories as a means of interaction and point of conversation can be a powerful tool. And most importantly it’s something that you can do too.

Here are a few of my tips to help you make the most of reminiscence with your loved one.

  1. Create a memory book
  2. Collect old photos from your loved one’s past and stick them into a scrapbook. Cover it with newspaper articles or iconic images from a time they may be familiar with. See if you can get your hands on some images from popular advertisements, TV commercials or films.

    Remember not to assume that the memories you have of your loved are the memories they associate with themselves. Get in touch with your loved one’s friends and other relatives and ask them for photos or stories from their shared past. They might have photos or anecdotes that form part of your loved one’s memories that you’re not aware of. Record them in the scrapbook alongside any photos if possible.

  3. Create a music playlist
  4. Think about your loved one’s favourite songs and compile a playlist. If you’re unsure of their favourite songs, create a playlist with popular music from a time that might be familiar. Remember to think about their cultural roots and the type of music they may have listened to.

    Also think about how your loved one would have listened to their music. Life hasn’t always been accessible online and through download. Your loved one might be more familiar with vinyl records or cassette.

  5. Collect familiar items from the past
  6. Pop into a local charity shop, jumble sale or jump on the internet to see if you can source some items from your loved one’s past – for example an old ‘wireless’ (radio) or TV and ‘clicker’ (remote control). You might even be able to source an old record or cassette player, which your loved one could play their music on. Show these items to your loved one, or place them in their home or room. As well as generic items, see if you can find some personal belongings – a favourite painting or item of clothing.

  7. Remember the senses
  8. In addition to what we see, the things that we hear, smell and taste can become engraved in our memory too. Don’t forget to tap into these senses when reminiscing with your loved one. Will the smell of a favourite childhood meal spark a familiar memory, or perhaps a familiar sound?

  9. Observe and learn
  10. It’s also important to be observant and learn about the type of things your loved one responds to. When they respond, this means you’re tapping into memories that have meaning and you can use this information going forward.

It’s important to remember, however, that not all memories are happy ones. Some can be troubling or upsetting, so be sensitive to this.

Is there any evidence for the benefits of reminiscence therapy?

Research has looked into the specific benefits of reminiscence therapy and it’s thought that it can help to improve:

  • cognition (how well the brain functions)
  • mood
  • how well people with dementia are able to get along with daily living – this is known as functional ability

But, these effects were only found in a few low-quality studies. Overall, we need more robust and high-quality research before we can draw any firm conclusions.

However, that’s not to say that reminiscence therapy isn’t beneficial. It’s accepted and supported in lots of care settings and is thought of highly by both staff and people with dementia. I’ve often seen how reminiscence therapy can have a positive impact on someone with dementia. It might be something as simple as initiating a smile or a more prominent uplift in their mood that day.

In addition, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) also suggests that therapies, including reminiscence therapy, should be available to your loved one if they have anxiety or depression too. Both of these conditions are quite common in people who have dementia.

If you want to find out more about dementia and how to care for your loved one, take a look at our information on dementia.

Paul Edwards
Head of Research and Clinical Development at Bupa UK

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