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Understanding Reminiscence Therapy and How it Works

When you think of the most significant health risks facing older people, you might think of heart disease or cancer. But social isolation does untold damage to senior citizens and increases the risk of developing neurocognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Social isolation hurts people’s health far more than we think, with the AARP reporting that it’s equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

With more than half of older people reporting some level of social isolation, it’s imperative we begin dealing with this problem before it leads to cognitive decline. Helping seniors engage with peers and loved ones may help slow the onset of cognitive conditions and make them more manageable in their early stages, before the more dire symptoms of dementia begin to set in.

Memory, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

With the aging population, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to triple by 2050. So far, 4 FDA-approved approved prescription drugs have had little to no benefit for most of these individuals. Because of this, researchers have begun looking into non-pharmaceutical treatments for these conditions. These interventions look to alter a person’s mood and signs of physiological distress, rather than alter their body’s chemistry.

Older people in cognitive decline often forget things they’ve known for years, like what they did for a living or the city they live in. However, they tend to still remember significant life events, like the birth of a child or their wedding day. Memories from the ages of 10 to 30 tend to be stronger than other memories, with those of people’s late teens and early twenties being the strongest. By using some simple triggers, individuals can vividly recall these memories from several decades ago.

Reminiscence therapy looks to capitalize on this by having people engage with long-term memories. Having them remember cherished memories from a long time ago can create some unexpected positive results, with anecdotal evidence of benefits mounting rapidly.

How does reminiscence therapy work?

In reminiscence therapy, individuals experience memories through photos, music or other materials. It’s best to use a multi-sensory approach to help trigger those memories. This is the most commonly used non-pharmacological treatment for Alzheimer’s and other dementias. In fact, this treatment has been around for more than fifty years and was first used in nursing homes and care facilities.

Reminiscence therapy and its measured successes are based primarily on the ‘continuity theory’ of memory. The continuity theory postulates that elderly individuals use familiar knowledge, skills and strategies to develop stable patterns of activity, to better adapt to aging. Remote memory, within which reminiscence processes occur, is usually the last system to deteriorate in situations of cognitive decline. Therefore, increased use of remote memory in older adults may improve general cognitive function. Reminiscence therapy can be used to stimulate remote memory.

The benefits of Reminiscence Therapy

On a basic level, reminiscence therapy is a positive experience for most individuals in cognitive decline. They remember the good times of their youth and early adulthood. This treatment may also spark productive and lively conversations with caregivers and family members. All of this can be positive in terms of fighting against the depression and anxiety so common in individuals with dementia.

After a few weeks of this therapy, many report that their loved ones seem happier and brighter. It can downplay the gloom that comes with social isolation. Reminiscence therapy has also been shown to have positive effects that:

  • Improve mood and cognition
  • Decrease depressive emotions
  • Increase psychological well-being
  • Improve life satisfaction
  • Enhance communication
  • Increase cognitive level
  • Improve social activities

It may also have positive effects on cognitive functioning. In randomized controlled trials measuring cognitive functions and depressive symptoms, ‘findings suggest that regular reminiscence therapy should be considered for inclusion as routine care for the improvement of cognitive functions and depressive symptoms in elderly people with dementia, particularly in institutionalized residents with dementia.’

Concerns and barriers

One of the major issues with reminiscence therapy in the past has been that it takes a long time and is best done in a group setting with a caregiver. And, because the caregiver doesn’t have to be a medical professional, many critical reminiscence therapy articles are quick to discredit its methodologies. Reminiscence therapy also has the potential to be more impactful and productive when moderated by a family member or loved one who may have shared these memories or be able to contextualize them.

Other disadvantages also include the time-intensive and repetitive practice of guiding an individual through stimuli. However, thanks to today’s modern technologies, digital resources are making it easier for caregivers to deliver therapy without physical proximity. Moreover, they’re allowing family and loved ones to play a role in keeping a person engaged. Because it’s not a traditional, clinical therapy, reminiscence therapy can help individuals play a meaningful role in the care of their loved ones.

Sadly, science has yet to find a solution that stops cognitive decline and the onset of dementias. And while reminiscence therapy isn’t a panacea, it may help build bridges between those suffering from waning cognition and those who wish to help them. Click here to learn more about ReminX.