We used to call it “taking a trip down memory lane.” A senior loved one would open a trunk in the attic as family members waited to see the treasures inside—yellowed photographs, old books, or a baby’s first pair of shoes. Then the elder would begin telling stories about their childhood, their loves, and their losses. The senior’s face would radiate with life and emotion.
Today we call this reminiscence therapy, and it’s often used in groups or private settings in nursing homes and assisted living communities with residents who have Alzheimer’s disease.
How Reminiscence Therapy Works
Reminiscence therapy works because our senses— sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—store information about life events in several areas of the brain. By deliberately using the senses, those brain areas are stimulated and a person may have better recall.
For example, songs and sounds, even birds chirping, can bring back happy memories. That triggers dopamine, one of the body’s feel-good chemicals. Dopamine allows messages in the brain to travel more quickly, so recall happens more easily. It is also a natural pain-killing drug that reduces the stress chemical cortisol, which can inhibit memory.
The combination of dopamine and improved memory can increase self-esteem for people with Alzheimer’s. This type of therapy has been shown to improve mood and cognitive function. Residents are less withdrawn and more socially active. However, there is a need for sustained therapy because Alzheimer’s disease continues to disrupt memory.
Keep Happy Memories Flowing for People with Alzheimer’s
There’s a wonderful children’s book that’s read aloud on YouTube, “Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge,” by Memo Fox. It’s about a little boy who befriends a 96-year-old woman who has lost her memory. However, she finds bits of it when he brings her a basket of objects. Each item triggers a strong memory of joy, hope, love, or sadness.
Unlike the little boy in the story, family members of people with Alzheimer’s often live with a considerable amount of daily stress. Work, family, and everyday responsibilities can be overwhelming for family caregivers. It is a situation that may reduce the quality of a family’s visit because people with Alzheimer’s can still sense tension.
To help reduce stress before visiting a senior who lives in an Indiana assisted living community, family members might consider taking time for a little self-care. Eat a snack, exercise, take a walk, call a friend, or have a short rest. These activities may diminish frustration, fatigue, and sadness. Your senior loved one may be more receptive to a visit from the relaxed “friend” who suddenly appears in their room.
Also, be aware that your feelings of empathy toward your loved one will help reduce stress and produce the neurotransmitter oxytocin—a powerful chemical that creates trust and cooperation.
Play detective during your reminiscence sessions. When your family member speaks, watch and listen for connections to memories. Sometimes they are logical ones, while other times they are only vaguely associated with the words that the senior is saying. Pay close attention to their facial expressions and their body language. When verbal skills are impaired, both can help you truly gauge the senior’s feelings.
Finally, it’s essential that you support all of your loved one’s attempts to remember events. Follow their lead. They may be trying to take you down a bumpy memory lane, and it’s important for you to ride along.
Assisted Living & Dementia Care at Five Star Senior Living
Five Star Senior Living offers both assisted living and dementia care for older adults across the state of Indiana. To continue learning more about dementia care or other issues impacting older adults in Indiana, we invite you to Subscribe to our Blog. We share the latest news and findings several times each week!