Reminiscence Therapy: Healing with Memories

11 March, 2020
Reminiscence therapy helps enlighten patients about the meaning of life through their own personal memories and emotions.

Reminiscence therapy has become very popular in gerontology. It’s a way of combining the past and the present through memories and emotions that help a person get in touch with their reality. It helps strengthen the person’s identity and perception of life by retrieving who they were in the past and solving unfinished business.

One of the biggest challenges that society faces is, undoubtedly, population aging. But life expectancy is increasing, as health resources, lifestyle, and dietary habits have helped us reach older ages.

However, inside this positive aspect, there’s a very significant challenge: is there a way to get older while preserving mental health? It’s a fact that Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions reduce the elderly’s quality of life. But gerontology also faces other problems, such as loneliness and overall dissatisfaction with life.

 “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”

-George Burns-

An old couple undergoing reminiscence therapy.

Reminiscence therapy: concepts and strategies

Renowned gerontologist and psychiatrist Robert Butler was the first to describe the reminiscence exercise as a useful and effective psychological resource for older patients. It’s a way of reviewing one’s own life in order to adapt to the cycle of existence.

Butler described it as a return to the awareness of past experiences and, particularly, of unresolved problems, in order to put them into perspective and give them a new meaning. If you think about it, this exercise is something you probably often do throughout life. However, it’s especially beneficial when you reach a certain age.

In fact, studies like the one conducted by Ph.D. Irazoki and Ph.D. Garcia-Casal reveal that reminiscence therapy is highly useful in dementia patients’ cognitive processes.

What does it consist of?

Reminiscence therapy is a cognitive stimulation technique. In fact, according to Carvallo, Arroyo, Portero, and Ruiz (2012), it’s a group of neuropsychological intervention activities that aim to enhance an elder’s neuroplasticity and is especially useful in cognitive impairment processes.

  • This type of therapy can be done individually or in group.
  • The use of photographs is very common, but it’s also helpful for the patient to speak about their past memories. The specialist can try to exercise the patient’s episodic memory (personal and specific memories such as the birth of a child, trips, or work experiences, among others) or semantic memory (relevant historical data worth mentioning).
  • Therapists must encourage the emotional experience of each memory, as well as an expressive form of language and focused attention.

The goal is to promote a review of the patient’s own life to give an existential meaning to everything they’ve experienced. Reminiscence therapy also aims to solve personal conflicts and reach inner peace.

An old person's hand holding a younger person's hand.

The effects of reminiscence therapy

When you work or spend time with older people, something usually happens: not all of them are aware of their exceptional achievements. Often, they focus on the present and might feel lonely, sore, and ill.

Therefore, it’s necessary to make them more aware of what they’ve done, the children they’ve brought into this world, the difficulties they’ve overcome successfully, and how happy they’ve made other people.

Getting them to connect with their successes and whatever made the smile in the past is the key to helping them rebuild and dignify themselves.

  • Reminiscence therapy strengthens the older patient’s identity.
  • It helps them manage past personal conflicts.
  • This therapy improves self-esteem.
  • Reduces anxiety and improves adaptation to the present.
  • Optimizes family relationships by finding their personal meaning of life.
A rose on top of an old photograph.

It’s safe to say that reminiscence therapy is one of the best resources for patients with cognitive impairment. In fact, it’s a way of slowing down the deterioration process as much as possible and improving the patient’s emotional state. Without a doubt, it improves older people’s quality of life.

However, it’s worth noting that there’s still much to be researched. Society needs more approaches and strategies to face older people’s mental health. Hopefully, the world’s future population will have a much broader perspective on the matter.

  • González-Arévalo KA. Terapia de reminiscencia y sus efectos en los pacientes mayores con demencia. Psicogeriatría 2015; 5: 101-11.
  • Subramaniam, P., & Woods, B. (2012). The impact of individual reminiscence therapy for people with dementia: systematic review. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics12(5), 545–555. https://doi.org/10.1586/ern.12.35