Reminiscence, memory and dementia

i-miss-you2Last weekend I had a number of occasions for reminiscing with volunteering, school and nursing girlfriends. Catching up with ‘old’ friends is not only lots of laughter and fun, but it has a habit of highlighting my memory loss…  More blank spaces, less understanding, and afterwards, a few more tears. I have random and episodic memory loss, some long term and some short term, which is not only confusing for me, but for others as it can make it harder to believe I have dementia.

Many times, I often just pretend I understand or remember when in a group!

I know that with dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, long term memory is more often preserved, and so reminiscing is regularly used as an activity in residential aged care. My father in law hated this, as the era used for the reminiscing was of a time when he was only a very young child, and so meant very little to him. With a group of 20 people in the activity room, it was simply not possible to make it person centred and individualised, as there were not enough staff.

Reminiscence therapy involves discussing and sharing memories, reviewing and evaluating those memories, and re-capturing the emotions and feelings that are an integral part of those memories. This can be done in a one-to-one situation, or in groups, but I have mostly only ever seen it done in groups, due to staff numbers. A study published in the June 2007 issue of Geriatrics and Gerontology International concluded that a reminiscence group program was an effective way to enhance the cognitive capacity of people with Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia as well as their ability to participate in normal activities of daily living.

But what about the people with other types of dementias?

When reminiscing with someone with dementia it is better to take a less formal approach, and one-to-one is preferable to group reminiscence. Alzheimer’s Disease only accounts for about 50-60% of people with dementia, and long term memory is not necessarily preserved in the other group, suggesting to me unless it is a very personalised activity, then reminiscing might be doing more harm than good.

Therefore, for the people with other types of dementia. perhaps reminiscing in a group setting is far more distressing than helpful. If it means little, or it highlights what a person has forgotten, then the exercise is not only pointless but painful. My father in law was labelled uncooperative and apathetic because he did not want to join in the conversations during the reminiscing activities, when in fact, he was just BORED. He had Lewy Body Dementia.

Music is one of the most popular stimulations used for reminiscing. The more familiar the music is, the stronger the emotional response; but even unfamiliar music seems to aid reminiscence. Pictures that bring back memories are another excellent aid to the reminiscence process. Photographs of family and friends and anything else in one’s personal history are obvious choices, but any picture that elicits a memory of something in the past is beneficial.

For me, music is wonderful ‘therapy’, but as I have so much difficulty now knowing who is singing or what is being played, it also frustrates me. We signed up to a site called MOG which allow us to download any music in the world, at any time, but my ability to use this is very limited because of my memory impairment; it’s not a waste of money as we love this new music system, but definitely a sense of regular frustration!  Photographs are the same; it is sensational when I can recall the situations when they were taken, but painful when I can’t.

Oh how I miss my memory…

6 thoughts on “Reminiscence, memory and dementia

  1. Hello, I have long thought reminseining and “reminiscing therapy” are over used and over rated. It is overused because frequently it meets more the needs of those without dementia to confirm for ourselves that we are still “all there” than it does for us, who already know and somewhat accept that our past is no longer available to us like it formerly was. It makes others feel good or better, yet for us any imperfection in recall makes us feel bad.

    Yes, sometimes we feel good when we know we can reconnect, but we are setting ourselves up for inevitable disappointment. Better we should bring the conversation around to today. This is where we need to practice being, this is where we need to find the good feelings about our okayness. I know this is all easier said than done, but as a new life strategy for finding self reassurance in the moment I just don’t know of any other way of doing it.

    I believe it is over rated because it confirms the obvious/already know, we are having problems with our recall. It contributes to the stigma that we are fading away as our access to yesterdays become foggier and foggier; as our own self supported stigmas contribute to our feeling bad about ourselves.

    I too sometimes feel bad about what is happening to me. I feel sorry for myself and my plight. But then I reach moments of clarity like this where I find I am barking/crying up the wrong tree. I hope this different tree helps you as it helps me.



    • Hello Richard,
      Thank you for your ever insightful contribution to my life, my blog and this subject.
      Living in the now, and being ‘Mindful’ as much as possible helps a lot.
      With love from your friend,


  2. You may be losing memory Kate but you will always have your spirit ! That goes with you when you go only to be reborn again in a new life. Blessings friend….VK


  3. Kate, your observations on reminiscence are ringing so many bells for me. From a staff point of view – it can be so easy to consider a session of “reminiscence” a chance for the staff member to ask an entire group to remember one specific thing (Your Schooling, The War, etc). We tend to open a conversation with a general topic or interesting piece of information – and then break down naturally into twos or threes to really listen to one particular persons’ story. It makes much more sense – Thank you for sharing – I am going to share with my staff. XX.


    • Thank you Sarah… they were my rambling thoughts, and not much time spent on that post either, so I’m glad some of it resonated with you. Where it started, and where it ended are two completely different places!! Hugs and hello to all xo


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