What Is Reminiscence Therapy?

Close up of a senior woman on a video call with her therapist

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Reminiscence therapy (RT) is a type of psychotherapy that involves recalling past events. By returning to these past incidents, people feel pleasure. Often employed with older people, this type of life review therapy improves a person’s sense of well-being.

Dr. Robert Butler, a psychiatrist who worked in the area of geriatric medicine in the 1960s, is credited with first exploring the therapeutic value of reminiscence. Because RT is a non-pharmacological form of intervention, it can be widely used.  

Research shows that this kind of therapy improves self-esteem and comforts older patients. When older people are reminded of bygone days, they become eager to communicate with others. They gain a sense of fulfillment in sharing past episodes of their lives.

Reminiscence sessions may be conducted in a formal or informal way, either one-on-one or in a group setting.

The American Psychological Association states that the use of reminiscences or life histories can take place in either written or oral formats. For example, your grandmother might share old war letters from your grandfather with you, or your aunt might talk nostalgically about summer strolls she took in her childhood neighborhood. Sharing memories with loved ones through either method is valuable.

Just as storytelling is good for your mental health, reminiscing is, too.

How Reminiscence Therapy Works

Reminiscing can be a type of talk therapy, but it often involves more than conversation. For cognitively impaired seniors especially, the stimulation of the senses often brings back past memories.

When the senses are activated, it makes for more vivid remembering. For example, the scent of a woman’s deceased husband’s aftershave, the music from the couple’s favorite song, or the first bite of the family’s traditional lasagna served during the holidays—all these things might spark wonderful memories.

While therapists in a formal setting use individual or group work, you can initiate RT activities. Use a variety of senses to activate memories so that seniors can participate in reminiscence therapy.

Techniques of Reminiscence Therapy

Here are some ways to encourage your loved ones to revisit their past using sensory memories. Note how powerful it is to reminisce using music from your loved one’s adolescence and youth.

  • Visual: Go to the attic and take out old photo albums and keepsakes. Watch old movies of the family. Often, these visual reminders will cheer them up. Talk with your relative about their photographs, magazine clippings, letters, and diaries. Be sure to ask open-ended questions to stimulate your relative’s memories.
  • Aural: Play songs they grew up listening to or from their favorite bands using YouTube on your phone. Music therapy has a host of positive health effects including lowering blood pressure, boosting immunity, and staving off depression.

Hearing old songs is especially powerful for seniors with dementia and Alzheimer's, a common form of dementia. Dementia patients are often agitated, which can manifest as repetitive acts, restlessness, and aggressive behavior. One recent study on music intervention revealed promising effects in reducing these challenging behaviors in dementia patients. Integrating music into the therapy program can have profound effects.

In other recent research, scientists initiated a cross-sectional study about reminiscence and music-related memories. They built on previous research that showed a “disproportionate recall of memories that occurred between ages 10 and 30.” This bump in recall included musical memories. Therefore, scientists and therapists working with the elderly who are experiencing cognitive decline today are eagerly playing nostalgic music.

  • Taste: Cook or bake your senior relative’s favorite foods. Eat slowly and talk with them about what they remember about eating these foods as a child. For example, a single bite of panettone, a sweet bread that is enjoyed in Italy for Christmas, may prompt a flood of memories for your grandfather from Milan.
  • Tactile: Ask them to hold a high school sports trophy or feel the raised textures on a painting. Give your relative one of their old sweaters to touch. Or ask them to hold close to their heart a soft teddy bear they played with in childhood. You might ask your relative to try on a favorite ring or piece of jewelry.
  • Olfactory: Scents vividly conjure up memories for us. It’s remarkable how fast that happens. Use aromatic scents, perfumes, and scented candles to trigger memories. We associate memories so strongly with specific smells because the olfactory system is located in the same part of our brain that affects emotions and memory.

What Reminiscence Therapy (RT) Can Help With

Reminiscence therapy has been found to play a significant role in these conditions:

Dementia

Someone with dementia may feel lost and their family may feel helpless about how to communicate with them. RT helps loved ones connect and learn more about their loved one’s earlier life.

Typically, people with dementia lose their short-term memory but retain and can still access long-term memories. Therefore, seniors are in their element and feel good when this modality of therapy is used. They gain a sense of accomplishment and find pleasure in sharing their life stories.

Depression in Older Adults

Depression is one of the most common problems seniors battle. Based on a meta-analysis conducted in a recent scientific study, RT has been proven effective in reducing depression significantly.

The study also included older adults with chronic illness and those on antidepressants. Interestingly, the study found that “reminiscence therapy is more effective for older women and older adults with more severe depressive symptoms."

Benefits of Reminiscence Therapy

In addition to helping patients with dementia and Alzheimer's, the positive effects of this therapy are wide-reaching.

Proven beneficial effects include:

  • Improved self-esteem
  • Reduction of unwanted behaviors
  • Decreased stress
  • Heightened sense of well-being
  • Feelings of joy
  • Expanded opportunities to connect
  • Deeper intergenerational bonds between relatives
  • Better bonds between therapists and patients
  • Reduction in depressive symptoms
  • Increased quality of life
  • Ease in finding meaning in their lives
  • Helps seniors accept their current conditions

As mentioned before, RT can be used in individual, group, or family sessions. Licensed therapists may use life therapy as part of a comprehensive plan focused on life review. By reconstructing memories from their past, it helps older adults construct a biographical narrative.

Or individuals can use RT with their family members and discuss a variety of memories out of sequence. Active listening is encouraged. It’s helpful to respond in a positive manner. You might also ask follow-up questions like “How old were you when you got your first job?” or “Were you afraid when you were shipped off to the army?” This way, you can also request that your loved one expands on what they briefly said. Silences are nothing to fear. Give your loved one time and be supportive and encouraging.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Barbara Field
Barbara is a writer and speaker who is passionate about mental health, overall wellness, and women's issues.