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Reminiscence Therapy by Doris Daly

(see intro to Reminiscence project )

A sociologist (Butler) wrote an article in praise of reminiscence and it became the buzzword of the 60's as the great cure all for the ageing process among other things. Since then it has spawned an industry and perplexed those who have to sell the idea of it. Can it be quantified? Is it a tool for academics?

Or is it a therapy for the use of social workers in institutions? Controversy reigns. And it is a mistake to believe that only the elderly reminisce, the older person has more time to reminisce. It is also erroneously considered to be the prerogative of the working class and a look at commercial "memorabilia" will confirm this myth.

Without a memory there is no person, there is no selfhood. A person exists from having lived through the past.

  • Reminiscence seeks to establish the individual's self-worth by providing an opportunity to recall and recount their journey through life.
  • It reinforces their image of themselves as worthwhile individuals, and establishes their personal identity in the society in which they have invested their lives.
  • Age culture or class is not a barrier. It exercises the memory cells of the brain, a necessity to keep it honed and healthy, even if some of those cells have been damaged or diminished.
  • It provides a pathway for growth and extends self-knowledge.
  • It aids group building and provides a bridge for moving towards the wayfarers who share our great and wonderful sojourn here on earth.
  • It affects a shift in consciousness to move on and get on with life. It resolves old conflicts. It is a catharsis.

How can we start a Reminiscence Project?

Reminiscence is more successfully conducted by a qualified teacher or tutor who has a firm grounding in social history, group dynamics, anatomy, physiology, myths legends and superstitions, music and song, among other things.

The tutor controls and checks the scheme of work, lesson plans, and classroom etiquette, with a commitment to confidentiality, insures that everyone has their say and is listened to with manners and respect.

There is always the danger that a session might deteriorate into a shouting match, a bragging contest, an exchange of insults, and a gossipmonger's field day. The introduction of ground rules from the beginning is essential and the experienced tutor will be on the alert and keep a tight rein on class management wherever that class may be, be it in an old folks home, the women's institute, the local day hospital, a class for people with learning disabilities, at a pensioners club.

A stimulating programme of targets set by mutual agreement with the class members, gives momentum and longevity to a class and eliminates boring repetition and absenteeism. Collecting artefacts, photographs, visits to places of interest, museums, archives, theatres etc. enlivens and invigorates the class, attracts new members involves the neighbourhood and the staff of institutions.

This will eclipse the clique or the elitist element and take on an ethos of equal institutions where the residents are at different stages of dementia or suffering from stroke or other nervous diseases. This is a specialist field and demands a specialist's attention, but the ground rules remain the same.

Enquire at your local college to find out if they have or are considering a reminiscence project or cajole them into starting one - especially for YOUR seniors group!

Reminiscence, like love, is "a many splendoured thing, ... its nature's way of giving a reason to be living....".

So, dance back across the decades on the milestones of your life and put your marker down to say you passed this way, once.

Doris M. Daly  RGN

with thanks to City and Islington College - Reminiscence classes


Each Monday morning round the table
We pick up pieces from our past,
Some in order, others coming out
In broken lines, as we are able
To catch a glimpse, and make it last,
Of things that made us - without a doubt!

Our countries first, and they are scattered
Around the world from north to south.
All remembered with great affection
For youthful learning which has mattered
All our lives; now by word of mouth
And written tale, from that direction

We have come, through wars' sad, jagged gates,
Through poverty, through family cares,
Through hard-won work, to tell our stories,
And to look at how our sev'ral fates
Have brought us to London's core; life wears
Us out but cannot dim our glories.

We all look at one another now
With new eyes, at the lines of found
Connection, across continents and
Work, friendships and places, and how
Though individuals all, round
Us life's web has woven its strong band.

Anne Gilman 2000

Memory looms large in our understanding of mental health and mental illness. For some people, remembering painful events, like abuse or the death of a loved one, causes suffering. But as we age, remembering too little becomes the problem for many of us. A simple form of therapy can be helpful when memory begins to fail. And, as an additional benefit, it can help with mood problems.

What is Reminiscence Therapy?

Reminiscence therapy uses prompts, such as photos, music or familiar items from the past, to encourage the patient to talk about earlier memories. It's generally offered to people in their later years who have mood or memory problems, or need help dealing with the difficulties that come along with aging.

Since the late 1990s, partially controlled studies have shown that this treatment has a small but significant positive effect on mood, self-care, the ability to communicate and well-being. In some cases, this therapy improves intellectual functioning.

The History of Reminiscence as Therapy

The idea that reminiscing could be therapeutic was first proposed in the 1960s. Robert Butler, a prominent psychiatrist who specialized in geriatric medicine, coined the term "life review." He proposed what many now take as a given: When approaching death, people find it helpful to put their lives in perspective. In an earlier decade, talking about distant memories was thought of as "living in the past" and therefore a problem.

The idea behind reminiscence therapy is consistent with the theories of adult psychological development that were being proposed around the same period by another famed professional, the psychologist Erik Erikson. Erikson thought that for the greater part of adulthood, we are challenged to find creative, meaningful work in order to avoid feeling stuck. Then, in the final phase of life, we may try to review where we have been and what we have accomplished in the hope that we can feel good about our lives. Reminiscence therapy, which incorporates both Dr. Butler's insights into life review and Dr. Erikson's theory of psychological development, may help a person achieve that goal.

How Does Reminiscence Therapy Work?

Reminiscence therapy can be conducted formally or informally with individuals, families, or groups. Typical topics are:

  • Family and friendships
  • Loves and losses
  • Achievements and disappointments
  • Adjustments to life's changes

Sessions can last from 30 to 60 minutes and occur weekly or even several times per week. Depending on the training of the clinician, the patient's needs and the setting, the goal may be to:

  • Improve communication
  • Foster a person's sense of self
  • Improve mood
  • Provide an enjoyable social activity

Perhaps it is easiest to think of reminiscence therapy or life review as a variation on supportive psychotherapy. Reminiscence is a way for a therapist and patient to develop a therapeutic relationship. By creating a sympathetic situation, therapists may make it easier for patients to verbalize their problems and concerns.

In the best case, this therapy can help patients establish realistic goals and come to terms with life's disappointments and limits, while taking pleasure and pride in recalling accomplishments.

What Does The Research Say?

Research has shown that older people with symptoms of depression who participate in reminiscence therapy report better self-esteem and are more positive about their social relations than similar people who do not receive the therapy. They also tend to have a more favourable view of the past and are more optimistic about the future.

The results for patients with dementia are not quite as encouraging or clear — although mental abilities and behaviour do seem to improve. But the more interesting effect may be on the people caring for people with dementia. Caregivers report a reduction in stress and improved knowledge of the patients.

As treatments go, there are few side effects to reminiscence therapy. But you still need to be cautious. Not all memories are pleasant, and some individuals use the time to nurse their bitterness over disappointments. People with advanced dementia cannot participate. There are still relatively few controlled studies in this area of research, so clinicians must keep their expectations realistic.

Think of this the next time you visit old friends, or have an opportunity to see an older relative. The pleasure of reminiscing may help the person you're talking to, and you may feel better too.












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