Reminiscence Therapy Activities for People With Dementia

What is reminiscence therapy?

One of the symptoms of dementia is the loss of short-term memory. People living with dementia may forget that they have just said something and repeat themselves, they may be unable to recall how to get to a particular room or remember a loved one’s face. However, when prompted, many will still be able to recall the words to a song from their childhood, or they may pick up an old photograph and talk about the person in detail. This is known as reminiscence and can be helpful in creating a sense of happiness and wellbeing in addition to helping others learn more about the person, especially care providers. Reminiscence therapy sessions provide a platform to reflect and share their experiences in a supportive environment.

These therapy sessions do not have to be done by professional therapists, they can be done by care providers including lifestyle coordinators or family members. The sessions should be provided by someone the participants feel comfortable with in order for a relaxed experience by all and ideally, in a familiar setting too. Often, care homes will have regular activity sessions that incorporate some degree of reminiscence, whether it be singing well-loved songs or rolling out the pastry for biscuits and talking about past experiences.

Who would benefit from reminiscence therapy?

We all benefit from recalling happy memories from the past, however, for anyone living with dementia, it is a way to experience a sense of normality in an ever-confusing world. It may remind them of a time when they were once valued in a place of work or were an important part of a friendship or family group. Many people with dementia can suffer from depression and a lack of motivation but reminiscence therapy can help bring about positive feelings and a renewed sense of worth that can continue on into the days or weeks ahead.

Reminiscence therapy may not be suitable for people with frontotemporal dementia (Pick’s disease) due to the disease affecting personality and behaviour, or for those in late-stage dementia. However, even the latter may find some memories can be triggered by using sensory items such as textured fabric like satin (weddings) or lace net curtain (view from a front window). Scented items can also be effective like lemon or peppermint to evoke fond memories of childhood sweets or seaside rock.

What does a typical reminiscence therapy session look like?

The therapy will often be done as a group activity or as one-to-one sessions and can be for short or longer periods, usually once or twice a week. It can consist of just a conversation about a past experience or can be more immersive such as a whole room made to look like a vintage grocery shop with people able to buy things, with people in costume and using real coins. Generally, most care homes or families won’t have either space or resources to set up a fake shop or post office. But sessions can be just as effective by using well-chosen items to hand around to hold and talk about.

Someone will lead the session, normally seating everyone in a circle or around a table so that they can all see each other – this is especially important for those who are hearing impaired in order that they can see what is happening. It is important that there are no disturbances – unlocking dormant memories can take time and interruptions can severely disrupt the thought process – especially so with dementia.
A theme will be decided upon in advance – this needs to be something appropriate that all the participants can relate to.

Some suggestions are:

  • Childhood
  • School
  • Family life
  • Work
  • Historic events
  • Music
  • Movies/theatre
  • Wartime experiences (if appropriate)

A variety of ways may be used in which to trigger memories; these might be:

Visually – watching clips of old newsreels, images of adverts, well known people, movie clips, and paintings. These could be watched on a large screen if available or images can be printed out and handed round.

Touching – some may make up a reminiscence kit with a selection of items in that can be passed around, allowing each to rummage and select something of their choice? This allows more scope for each individual to find something that is personal to them. A box, old handbag or lightweight toolbox could be used with six or so items related to a theme e.g. childhood – teddy, toy car, yoyo, story book (Enid Blyton?), lollipop, or nursery rhyme on a card.

Smelling – some scents are extremely evocative, herbs and spices such as mint, lavender and cloves can bring about all sorts of discussion. Discussion could include whether they like/dislike the smell and have they used it before – if so in what? What other herbs/spices did they like to use/taste?

Listening – sounds can also prompt reminiscence. A bicycle bell can trigger memories of childhood bikes or riding to work. Music may also be played to encourage people to join in – often even those in late-stage dementia can still automatically sing along to an old favourite like ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’.

Tasting – although our sense of taste can dull in older age, there are still flavours that can be very distinctive. Peppermint rock, coffee, lemon, honey, chips with salt and vinegar, curry sauce – all can be tried with often surprising effects. A piece of fruit cake can bring about memories of weddings or Christmas gatherings. Chips might evoke seaside holidays or first dates.

Reminiscence therapy sessions should be aimed to be relaxed and enjoyable. They should be tailored to the general age range of the group (or person) and there should be no pressure to talk or participate. Often, once one person begins to talk, others will join in and the difficulty may be in stopping people talking over each other. This is less likely with smaller groups of say four to six people and the leader should try to ensure each person has the opportunity to comment without being interrupted.

For individual therapy sessions, the person organising the session can also enjoy talking about their own experiences too. However, this should always be with the aim of encouraging the person with dementia to talk openly. Let them talk for as long as they wish and if the subject progresses to something else, allow this to happen as this can often lead to other long-forgotten memories resurfacing too.

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