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Top 10 Tips For Reminiscence With Older Adults

Group of senior men having fun and laughing in parkReminiscence and life review are two terms that refer to an essential task for positive aging: looking back on one’s past and determining whether one has had a successful life. You can read more about why this is so important in my last post.

If you are a caregiver for older adults, whether as a family caregiver, a community group leader, an activity director, or a hospice or home care worker, you can help your older adults clients look back on their lives in a way that is meaningful and enjoyable.

Below, I’ve given you my top ten tips for reminiscence with seniors. These tips apply whether your reminiscence session is spontaneous or planned well in advance, and whether you’re reminiscing with a group or with one person. Do keep in mind that these tips are for reminiscence, which is meant to be an enjoyable, social way of sharing memories, not a means of delving deeply into past conflicts and difficult relationships. (As mentioned in my last post, the deeper processing of life review is best facilitated by someone with professional expertise, such as a social worker or music therapist.)

Setting Up For Success

1. Minimize distractions. Now is the time to turn off the TV, shut the door, and prepare to listen. If you’re in a large, public area, try to find a quiet space as far away from noise and visual distractions as possible.

2. Bring props, photos, or music to stimulate memories and to serve as conversational anchors. You might pick up items at garage sales or antique stores that work well as props for starting conversations. Magazines and coffee table books come in handy, too. I particularly like Memory Magz for visual cueing – these magazines include beautiful photographs without the distracting text you’d find in other books and magazines. (More on using music for cueing in my next post!)

3. Take cues from your surroundings. Of course, you don’t have to bring your own stuff to serve as conversation starters. Instead, look to the decorations and other objects around you. This might include holiday decorations, your care recipient’s own decorations and photos, the community dinner menu, or even what’s on TV. Start with referring to one of the objects in your immediate surroundings and let the stories flow from there.

4. Listen for conversational openings. More than anything, you must approach reminiscence with a listening ear and a readiness to bring someone into a conversation. When you come with the intention to support reminiscence, you may be surprised at how many opportunities there are to draw out stories and memories.

During the Conversation

5. Minimize pressure to remember facts. Nothing raises someone’s anxiety level more than being asked to remember something they just cannot remember. Resist the temptation to quiz your care recipients on information from their pasts. Instead, provide ample cues to help them remember. I especially love it when older adult clients have photos that have been labelled by their loved ones so I can help them reminisce about the people and events in the photograph.

6. Listen for feelings as well as facts. Sometimes people share stories full of fascinating detail, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, you may be surprised when particular feelings come up. (Not all stories about the Depression are sad, for example.) Listen for happiness, sadness, excitement, fear, grief, gratitude, and hope. And be ready to redirect the conversation when it starts getting too deep, and keep an ear out for people who might need something more than you can provide at that time, such as one-on-one time with you or a consultation with a therapist.

7. Be gentle in helping people to focus their stories. People with cognitive impairments, including dementia, may have difficulty staying on track with a group conversation or may be repetitive with the stories they share one-on-one. Avoid pointing out that you’ve heard a story many times before or filling in the story before the person has a chance to share it this time around. Instead, try to ask questions and provide cues to help people focus.

8. Avoid being too rigid in steering the conversation. Even when you come in to a reminiscence session with a plan, be sure to leave room for the conversation to take its own direction. If the goal is supporting folks in sharing what they need to share, it’s okay for the topic of conversation to evolve.  

Ending Well

9. Consider creating a record. Depending on the context and purpose of your reminiscence sessions – planned or spontaneous, group or one-to-one – you may want to have some way to record participants’ stories for their friends, families, and future generations. This may include recording reminiscence sessions, writing stories down, collecting photos or other objects to create a collage or time capsule, or writing a commemorative song. Choose a method that matches your participants’ desires and capabilities.

10. Express gratitude for those sharing their stories. Be sure to end your session by saying “thank you” to anyone who participated, either by sharing their own stories or by listening to others. No matter what content participants share, the mere act of coming together to swap memories and stories is something worthy of gratitude.

What tips would you add to this list? Please leave a comment below.

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