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Our memories help define us. Our recollections of happy and sad times, the people we loved, our greatest triumphs – and most humbling failures – are all key to our sense of self.
And at no time are our memories more important than as we age. With our bodies no longer as flexible and agile as they once were, the way we spend our time evolves into a new chapter. It’s crucial for our sense of identity to dip back into our pool of cherished recollections and remember the whole spectrum of who we are.
Often dynamic circumstances can make this difficult. As we age, we can lose touch with people with whom we share our most important memories. Injuries or physical challenges can make it harder for us to socialise with the friends with whom we share other fond recollections. At the very time we need to reflect the most, for emotional reasons, we often can’t, for practical reasons.
This is where helping a loved one to actively reminisce can be enormously beneficial. Reminiscing can improve the mental and emotional health of the storyteller and strengthen the bond with carers.
There’s also clear evidence that reminiscing can help protect against feelings of isolation. A recent Australian study of 47 nursing home residents found a ‘reminiscence group’ helped reduce depression and loneliness. Participants took part in activities including sharing memories, talking about life events and family history, and explaining their personal accomplishments.
Reminiscing is also good for the brain. As we go through life and grow older, our memories are at risk of being lost. If we do not re-live the stories of our life, the synaptic pathways in our brains grow weak and our memories fade. Storytelling sparks these memories into life, reroutes them through the brain and resaves them, sometimes with some of the smaller details becoming distorted in the process. This means that as well as helping us to hold onto our memories, talking about them strengthens identity and produces pleasant and comfortable feelings, with the ability to edit and re-write our personal stories in a way that benefits us.
A key part of reminiscing is nostalgia. We can access feelings and sensations from the past by touching, seeing, hearing or smelling of something that evokes a different time. There is evidence to suggest that smell has the strongest connection to our emotions due to the nose’s direct connection with the olfactory lobe in the limbic system, the area in the brain considered the seat of the emotions. Just think what the smell of freshly cut grass or new baked bread does for you.
Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University argues, “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function. It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives.”
If you’re ready to take the plunge and help someone close to you reminisce, here are some ideas for you to consider.
As the name suggests, this involves talking to a person about their memories on a one-to-one basis. This form of reminiscing promotes communication and strengthens rapport with loved ones and, in aged care facilities, with staff.
A great way to start is to use cherished objects, handmade items, photos or videos related to the older person. These are excellent props for reminiscing as they tend to hold special value for many people. Items that are textured such as embroidery or patchwork or a trinket, can have a strong impact, as can objects that stimulate other senses such as a favourite record. Ask questions about the item: where did they get it? what does it make them think of?
Allow the person to talk at their leisure and listen attentively; let them take you where they want to go. This process of reflection can provide a sense of pleasure and laughter, but also unearth some unresolved issues. Some people live with regrets about what they failed to achieve, so it can help to provide an alternate perspective and focus on the things your loved one has contributed, and the value they added to others’ lives.
In order to shift their focus and provide a sense of peace, you could say,
There is a chance that reminiscing may also stir up some painful memories. If this happens, it is imperative to be sensitive to your loved one’s reactions. It can be a natural instinct to try to placate them but often just listening helps them to feel heard and valued. Try listening for as long as they need to talk, in order to provide them with a sense of peace.
When they have a natural break in their speech, you may like to reflect what they have said and then reframe the situation they have described to acknowledge the value of their experience, such as, “How wonderful that you were able to enjoy those moments together. I bet you brought so much happiness to their life.”
However if they appear to be overwhelmed by sadness, you may like to just ‘be’ with them, letting them know that you are there for them without words, and perhaps gently using a form of distraction to reduce their overwhelm.
You may learn about some wonderful occasions that made the highlights of their life, that have not had the opportunity to be aired in day-to-day conversation. You may hear about some people or places that hold special value in your loved one’s life. You will most definitely make them feel respected, valued and loved.
If your loved one has difficulty with their sight, baking their favourite treat or playing them some music as they sit with their eyes closed is another approach. Asking what these smells and sounds remind them of might help them to use and enjoy their other senses.
You could also help a loved one to compile a scrapbook of some of the most important happy moments in their lives. They can use this time and again to reflect and they treasure it more than we can fully appreciate.
Group reminiscing involves bringing two or more older people together to reflect together. This is useful for people who may have shared interests or histories, providing them with an opportunity to form a mutually pleasing bond.
You might offer to host a monthly reminiscing session for your loved one and, say, three of their friends, neighbours or family members. Providing a comfortable space for all of them to open up and tell their stories will help strengthen the bonds between the people in the group.
Whatever approach you take to the activity, there will almost certainly be value for the person to whom you provide a reminiscing opportunity. You’ll be helping them to counteract loneliness, to build social skills to have more personal interactions, and generally improving their quality of life. Meanwhile, supporting your loved one to relive some of the best moments of their life can also provide you with an opportunity to connect more deeply, while also giving you a longer-term view to contextualize your own life.
There will undoubtedly be smiles and laughter. So, let’s unearth those happy memories to remind us all why life is so meaningful.