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Reminiscing about the old days sparks new life


Reminiscing about the old days sparks new life

“Each time we hear our favourite song, the memories come along, older times we’re missing, spending the hours reminiscing,” Little River Band sang to great acclaim in 1978, and, writes KENDALL MORTON, there is still a lot to be gained from reflecting on the past.

In 1963, Dr Robert N. Butler began researching why older people reminisce. The physician, gerontologist, psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize winner noted the older we get, the more we reminisce.

He coined the term “life review” for this process and saw it as having definite therapeutic value.

It’s important to distinguish between reminiscing and remembering. Remembering can put pressure on the older person to recall facts and details. Reminiscing is more free flowing.

It can be triggered by objects, such as old clothes, Christmas cards, a song or, of course, photos.

Locations and foods can also help. Reminiscing is most commonly encouraged through questions.

Following on from Dr Butler’s work, health practitioners and researchers generally agree reminiscing has many benefits for older family members.

It helps preserve family history, promotes conversation and can remind older family members they are valued – they have information and stories that are unique.

Reminiscing can assist an older person put their life into perspective. They can see their experiences as a timeline from childhood to now. It’s a chance to reflect on their achievements, their family, social connections and the times they lived in.

This new perspective can reduce the stress and discomfort of aging. Reminiscing can reduce boredom. Try asking your parent if they broke some school rules or wagged school or got into any mischief as a child. It can spark funny stories and laughter.

There are two ways to approach reminiscing. One is the informal conversational approach.

This suits most families as you can ask a question or two during a family visit when it’s appropriate. For instance, if a grandchild is going to swimming lessons, you can ask “Dad, who taught you how to swim?”

Health workers and carers often take a more structured approach. For someone with early dementia a memory box can be useful. Look around the house and the local opportunity shops. Put together a collection of old coins, recipes, letters, jewellery, football cards, theatre tickets, travel brochures, photos or other items you think have a special meaning.

Photocopy precious photos instead of using originals. This box can be added to over time and brought out regularly.

The most common form of reminiscing is conversation. It’s flexible. There are no props and you can start or stop the interaction quickly.

One question may lead to many follow-up questions so there is a natural flow. Here is a  selection of typical questions:

What family holiday traditions did you have growing up? What meal did you like best as a child? What chores did you have? Did you get pocket money? How did you get to school? Did you have a nickname? Were you good at sport? What was your first job? How old were you? How much you were paid? Who taught you to drive? What was your first car? What did you do for fun? What music did you like? What are you most proud of?

Some questions can lead into activities such as cooking a special dessert or finding a favourite song. Reminiscing needs to be light and fun.

If it’s just a list of questions, it can feel like an interrogation. It’s the reflections that are important, not the questions.

 Kendall Morton is Director of Home Care Assistance Sunshine Coast to Wide Bay. Call 5491 6888 or email

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