Some estimates suggest that one in five older people are prone to depression. If they live in a care facility the figure increases to two in five. We mustn’t jump to the conclusion that living in care homes increases the likelihood of depression because the need for care can be driven by all sorts of medical and social reasons. We know that isolation and loneliness can lead to depression. So can loss of role and the increased likelihood of age-related conditions.
One way that friends, family or caregivers can help is by encouraging the retrieval of positive memories and this isn’t simply to make the person feel better for a few moments. Evidence suggests that positive memory recall helps older people regain perspective regarding their strengths, abilities and even their future potential.
Unfortunately reminiscence can sometimes lapse into a state where the past merely serves to contrast current day losses. To this end it might be useful to provide a purpose for reminiscence and I’m falling back on my own experience as an example.
My elderly father-in-law had a great capacity for retrieving memories. For years, he had trotted out the same stories in virtually the same order to almost anyone who showed the slightest bit of interest. The unfortunate effect of this was he’d become a bore and his various stories were trapped in a kind of memory loop that once started had to be completed.
In more lucid moments he freely admitted it was a way he had of trying to keep things alive in his mind. The past was a rich source of memories but he was only scratching the surface of them. When he could no longer cope he moved in with us. Perhaps more by accident than design, we slowly started to marshal these random memories into some kind of order. A project slowly emerged which was part documented family tree but also a host of associated stories that span off. It was particularly gratifying to see the positive effect of this. We showed interest and in turn he became interested.
Our memories tend to reflect the kind of mood we are in at the time. My father-in-law was ill so it was important not to deny him his right to have a good moan about his predicaments. However, we did find that by producing old photographs, watching certain TV programs, visiting places, cooking up old recipes and using the Internet we were able to break into his trapped memories somewhat and free them up. Our project slowly expanded into a kind of scrapbook series that engaged him, and us, very actively for months and which slowly but surely elevated his mood.
Highly predictable lives are often a feature of old age. Routines can be comforting but they can also become dreary and disheartening. It is possible to savor good memories in order to feed contentment in the present and I’d encourage anyone with the time and inclination to do just that, either for themselves or for others.
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Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.
Updated on: November 15, 2016