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Remember when? That question was often asked of my mother and others who experienced Alzheimer’s or dementia. The phrase is so common. Despite my knowledge I obtained as a long-time caregiver to an older person, I slipped it into conversations with my mother in so many final moments of her life.
It is muscle memory, this desire to remember, to want others around you to do the same.
However, whenever I approached my mother with this question, I considered whether she would remember my deceased father or my sister who had experienced a traumatic brain event? I walked on eggshells, wondering if this kind of remembering, called life review or reminiscence therapy, was good for her health or brain?
In the late 1970s, reminiscence therapy (RT) was introduced to dementia care through several studies, including one by J.M. Kiernat, who evaluated this type of life review in 1979, and A.D. Norris, who again did so in 1986. The premise of these studies was that a significant number of dementia individuals often rely on memories to move through their day. They can recall them vividly, more closely than you or I could. Therefore, if one were to peruse old photos, newspapers, letters, music, and nowadays, sharing of digital content, as means into the past, these acts would help stimulate remembering, activate one’s mental acuity, and improve overall well-being.
The National Institute for Dementia, located in India, performed studies on how one remembers or recalls events of the past. In an interview with HT Digital, Dr. Santosh Bangar, a senior consultant geriatric psychiatrist in Mumbai, suggested four ways to bring one gently into this type of reminiscence: listen to music, look at old photos, smell familiar scents or foods, and utilize the tactile nature of articles.
We attempted all four tactics for my mother through music and memory programs, displaying photos stored on my phone and her framed wedding day photo which she viewed with pride. The day I brought her a homemade pizzelle, our family’s signature Italian cookie, she took it from my hands with reverence and uttered, “Oh, these.” My mother also loved soft blankets. Anytime I wore a fleece coat, my mother wanted to nestle inside of it. These were lessons about remembering I learned over time through trial and error and observing other individuals with similar challenges.
Finding One’s Voice in Memory
When my mother first experienced dementia, she and I lived 250 miles apart. I wanted to know more about her disease and set out to learn how best to communicate and interact with a loved one experiencing what she was in her life. I proposed a writing workshop called Found Voices to a local senior center for participants with mild cognitive decline.
Our sessions included introducing ourselves by passing smooth or rough stones whose origin ranged from Oregon to Florida. We talked about themes such as baseball, ate bites of a hot dog or drank milkshakes. We played Take Me Out to the Ballgame, read Casey at the Bat, and finally wrote on the subject. Participants were surprised to read their words or hear themselves speak about a time in their lives they hadn’t thought about in many years. Reactions ranged from, “I forgot about that,” to “I never knew I knew that.” In that setting, their words made complete sense to them, and to me.
We had been employing a type of Reminiscence Therapy, or life remembering activity, side by side with those in the workshop. We created those memories together. One thing most RT studies cannot always address is the power of linking up with others in community when recreating memories in the same space. Psychologist Alan Dienstag wrote, “When individuals are around others who are doing a writing and remembering activity, this serves as a powerful enticement to do it themselves.” A moment they remember is a moment of success for them, a moment when they feel connected to something other than their next meal.
What is the overall impact of RT?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) aggregated multiple studies on Reminiscence Theory. While the overall impact was negligible, there were signs of individual impacts in care home settings. They also acknowledged how RT took several forms and therefore, it was difficult to conclude which form might work for any one individual.
According to the NIH, reminiscence work or this type of life review “has consistently been helpful for older people with depressed mood,” as shown by Bohlmeijer in 2003 and Pinquart in 2007. Life review may also be helpful in preventing depression in older adults and in improving life satisfaction and quality of life (QoL) in older adults in general.
Nowadays, we carry little computers in our pocket to access photos, music, words to read aloud. I could show my mother pictures of a niece growing up in southern Florida, or of my son, who had moved to Oregon, but once snuggled in the crevice between her shoulder and neck. She would smile, reach for my hand, and feel something inside I couldn’t touch.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press) and is a recipient of a 2020 NSNC award. A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Still Point Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, and others. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.