Reminiscing: How To

Making Memories by Sharing Memories

In a recent blog post, Reminiscing with Your Loved One, I touched lightly on the how-to’s of recalling the past. Here, I’d like to expand a little and give some direction about reminiscing.

First, use pictures whenever possible.  Pictures of the loved one’s past are wonderful, but you can also google the topic you’d like to discuss and click on ‘images.’  When you google for photos, be sure to use an appropriate time frame as well as what you’d like to see in the photos. For example, when discussing children’s games, I would google “children’s games of the 1940’s and 1950’s” or “vintage children’s games.”  Then, click ‘images’ and scroll through the pictures.  Try to choose pictures with good contrast so that your loved one can see them better.  I take my glasses off and look at the photo.  If I can still make out the details, I use that photo.  A strange trick, I know, but it works!

Next, stay to the same subject as much as possible. This allows your loved one to ‘borrow’ words from you that they may not be able to readily recall.  It also ‘primes the pump’ – it gives them time to truly discuss the memories because they have had time to process the photo and the questions you’ve asked. If your loved one leads the discussion to another topic, follow them there.  Reminiscing is like a dance.  Your loved one is the dance partner who leads…  You follow…

Start with a story – even if it’s made-up.  I like to tell a story I heard or experienced to get the ball rolling. Sometimes I make something up from the photo, and sometimes I just bring something up. When talking about children’s games, I might tell a story about a woman I knew who was so very good at marbles that she beat all the boys in the school yard!  She was always so proud to tell that story! And, how she stuffed those marbles into her leather, drawstring bag!  The questions I might ask are: Did you play marbles?  Were you good at it?  Someone told me that there were all different types of marbles…  Can you name a type of marble? (If they can’t name one, I might ask them what a ‘steelie’ looked like, or a tiger eye.)

Take your time!  There is no rush.  Ask your question and wait. Watch their face for nonverbal cues.  If they scrunch up their face as though confused, rephrase the question using fewer words and try again.  If you have asked an open-ended question and they look confused, try asking a question that they can answer with a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

Never, ever argue with them or try to correct them.  If they say your father was a great fisherman and you know they mean your uncle, don’t ever correct them.  They are right and you are wrong.  Correcting them just makes them frustrated and upset. I know you want the best for them and you want them to know the truth.  However, in their mind, the truth is that your father was a great fisherman…  who does that hurt? No one. Let them believe what they say.  You both will be much happier for it.  And, who knows, maybe your dad once was a great fisherman.  Maybe he quit fishing when the children came along…

Use as many of the senses as possible.  You know the senses we learned about in elementary school –  vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Ask questions that make them think about how it felt to play marbles.  Were the marbles warm or cool – smooth or bumpy?  Did the bag have a smell to it?  I imagine that leather bag had a very distinct leather smell…   Did they play outside or inside?  Was dirt better than gravel?  Can you show me how you would ‘shoot’ the marble?  What were the rules to the game?  Did only boys play or did some of the girls play, too?  Where did you get the marbles?  Did you ever buy them? Where?  Did the children get excited and cheer each other on or was it a quiet game, like chess?

Keep the session as long or as short as your loved one tolerates.  Again, let them lead.  Listen to their voice and watch their body language.  If they start looking all around and avoiding the conversation, it’s time to stop and meet their needs.  They just may need to go to the restroom or get a drink. Or, they just might need to quit.  They may have had enough.

Don’t be discouraged.  Try again another time. We’ve had sessions in the nursing home go for more than an hour, however those were group discussions.  We’ve also ‘bombed’ because I picked a topic of no interest whatsoever to the folks.  Just keep trying.  You will find treasure!

Make reminiscing part of your daily routine.  Those with dementia function much better with a set routine.  In our memory care unit, we save reminiscing for some time in the afternoon or early evening.  It is a calm, restful, uplifting activity that is packed with sensory information and emotion.  Hopefully, it will also become a time that you both look forward to – something to hope for!

My last little piece of advice is to write it down or record their memories in some way!  Try to capture as many memories as you can, right now, wherever they are in their dementia journey!  Capture those memories so that someday, when they can no longer talk, you can show them the photos and tell them, “I remember that story you told me about Aunt Hattie being so upset about losing a marble that she picked it up and put it in her mouth to keep her opponent from wanting it!  That must have been a hoot!”

Tried and True Reminiscing Sessions

Memories of Winter Fun