Reminiscence with people with Dementia

Treena Parsons, Research Fellow


Thinking back over past times, remembering people, places and events. Reminiscing. It is something almost everyone does, and yet it is something that can be used as a very powerful tool to connect or reconnect with a person with dementia, by recalling good memories of times gone by.

Whilst undertaking my PhD at Trinity College Dublin, which explored the experience of taking part in reminiscence work from the point of view of people with dementia and facilitators in Ireland, I was fortunate enough to observe and hear about many types of reminiscence work. The data collected from interviews with people with dementia, care workers and family members and from observations showed the benefits and challenges associated with delivering reminiscence work in real-world environments.

In this blog I will be discussing some of the ways in which reminiscence can be used with people with dementia in everyday life, both at home and in care settings. I will be discussing simple reminiscence work as opposed to reminiscence therapy, which is more specialised and may have an element of life review or self- evaluation involved. Simple reminiscence is usually aimed at sharing common memories and encouraging social, educational or recreational objectives. It usually uses open-ended prompts or multi-sensory triggers to stimulate reminiscence on topics likely to be of interest to participants and unlikely to trigger painful memories.

Why Undertake Reminiscence Work?

Reminiscence is associated with many benefits such as increased self-esteem and self-identity, enhanced communication and improved mood and wellbeing but It is also important to remember that as well as being a therapeutic activity, it is an activity which can simply be enjoyed by both the person with dementia and the caregiver (formal or family member/friend) and the value of that should never be underestimated.

How to Undertake Reminiscence Work

Reminiscence is often associated with looking at old photographs but there are many other ways to reminisce.

If you have specific time to put aside, a really pleasurable reminiscence activity can be compiling a life story book together. Life story books can be bought or you can easily compile one yourself, using simple materials such as a loose leaf ring folder, which has the added advantage that you can keep adding to it and can take out parts which a person with dementia decides they no longer want.  The book can become a record of a person’s life.  Some people like to record a life story in a chronological fashion, starting at birth.  Others prefer to concentrate on specific topics such as holidays, Christmas or other celebrations, jobs, favourite foods or films.  The list is endless.  Photographs are frequently included but other items can be used too, such as old school reports, wage slips, pieces of material which have significance (for example material from a favourite dress or curtains).  Take your cue from the person with dementia, it is their book and it is up to them to decide what should or shouldn’t be included.  Compiling a life story book can be an enjoyable activity for both the person with dementia and those who help them put the book together, and can often be a way for different generations to come together on a shared project.  Grandchildren and great grandchildren can help for example and can themselves benefit from learning about a different generation and family history.  But you can also try different ways to compile life story information, for example collages or blogs.

Reminiscence does not have to be done as a specific activity, it does not have to take up much time and can be incorporated into simple, activities of daily life.   Shared activities such as baking, polishing, gardening or folding ironing can all be enjoyable ways of connecting and these activities can be used to prompt reminiscence.  One example I was told of during my PhD studies was a caregiver singing an old familiar song to someone whilst helping them bathe.  A simple way of turning what was sometimes a stressful event into a more pleasant one.

Music is a very useful prompt for reminiscence and favourite songs and hymns are great ways of prompting reminiscence. The lyrics of songs and hymns may be remembered long after other things have been forgotten.  Humour is also a useful prompt with the retelling of old jokes and anecdotes and watching old comedy films, especially those with visual humour, often being enjoyed.

Recently new ways of reminiscing using technology have emerged and the Social Care Institute of Excellence (SCIE) have issued a guide for social care providers on using information and communications technology (ICT) with people with dementia in reminiscence work. In the guide ICT is acknowledged as an important resource for reminiscence work as it can give virtual access to a wide variety of prompts instantly, can easily be individualised and is flexible.

Reminiscence can involve all the senses, so think about things to smell, to see, to taste, things to touch and listen to.

Who should take part in reminiscence?

Most people with dementia enjoy taking part in reminiscence activities, but it is important to remember that not every person with dementia is suited to taking part in reminiscence. Some people are not interested in the past and some have experienced traumatic or distressing events which they may not wish to revisit.  It is important to always take your cue from the person with dementia and if necessary take advice from professionals. Similarly for caregivers, not everyone is suited.

Further information:

There is a growing body of work on reminiscence and the following may be of interest:

Robert Butler, (who founded the US Alzheimer’s Disease Association) was the first person to bring reminiscence for older people to the attention of health professionals and researchers worldwide and his work is still relevant today.

I particularly recommend the work of Faith Gibson, which is accessible and practical and uses a developmental life span perspective. Her book “Reminiscence and Life Story Work” is well worth reading.

The Reminiscence Network Northern Ireland is a good source of information and support and runs training courses.

And of course I would be happy to share my thesis with anyone interested in reading it!