Reminiscing powerful “drug” for people with dementia

  • I love stories. When I was a teenager, I’d encourage my grandparents to relate stories of their young years struggling to survive on the wind-swept prairie. When I grew older, I was fascinated by the stories my parents and in-laws told of their early years of growing up during the Great Depression. Little did I know at the time that peoples’ stories would become the springboard for my life’s work. Now there is mounting evidence that encouraging our elders to reminisce about their past is therapeutic as well as enjoyable.


    Many people around the country are now recording or even videotaping their elders as they tell stories about their past. This works for some. However, you need to know your loved ones. Not everyone wants to be onstage, so to speak, and preparing to record, even discretely, could take the spontaneity and fun out of the experience for some. Others may love it.

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    My family would have been put off by a formal approach with a tape recorder. For them, the stories were a natural part of some one-on-one time when I could ask a question that may stimulate a memory. They also often talked about the past with each other, and if I was nearby I’d soak it in. I do admit to wishing I’d been taking notes because I know I’ve lost details. Yet I’m heartened by the new research that shows that the telling of the stories may have helped their cognition as much as their moods.  


    An article on the value of reminiscing, recently published in USA Today, quotes Claire Day, vice president of constituent services for the Alzheimer's Association Delaware Valley Chapter.


    “Evoking memories can be as casual as asking a parent to tell a story, or as formal as a professionally produced video…cautions the extent of the project depends on the patient. Memories can be stirred by old movies with a favorite Hollywood star. Music almost always jogs the memory. .. two female patients who hadn't spoken in months until they heard the song ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ They were subsequently able to sing every lyric perfectly.” 


    Old photo albums and movies from the past are helpful

    After my dad’s brain surgery backfired throwing him into dementia literally overnight, we as a family flailed about trying different approaches to helping restore some quality of life. He’d always loved books, but he could no longer read. However, he could enjoy photo albums. He also adored music from the big band era, which brought back the time he and mom were high school sweethearts. Both approaches were therapeutic. DVDs weren’t readily available then, but now there’s a wide choice of old movies available to spur memories for elders.


    Hobbies or professions that involve music or art can enhance life for people with AD

    Not long ago, I watched a TV broadcast of a tribute to singer/guitarist/songwriter Glen Campbell who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. While the program brought tears to my eyes as I watched Campbell’s wife cue him on appropriate responses, he needed no cue to remember his music. Just watching his eyes brighten and his lips move when the musicians played his hits was enough to show me that his music is as much a part of him as blood and bone. He won’t likely be able to continue playing the complicated guitar licks that made him a giant in the industry, but my guess is that as long as his guitar is placed in his hands, he will play.


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    We don’t need to be Glen Campbell to have music or art renew our life during the dementia journey. Art therapy and music therapy are being used in many excellent nursing homes with wonderful results. Even theater is being used to evoke memories for elders. 


    Whether through stories of the past simply told to family members or recorded for posterity, through familiar musical instruments long given up placed in aging hands, or a paint brush held for the first time ever, the arts can help people remember the past and more fully live in the present. 


    Reminiscence through storytelling, music or art is a helpful “drug” with no negative side effects. Use it liberally in your caregiving. It could simply help a long day go better. Or it could start a whole new hobby for someone who was about to give up. Whatever the effect, your effort could pay off handsomely.


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Published On: March 21, 2015