Reminiscence Therapy for Alzheimer's Disease

The Benefits of Recalling Memories

Reminiscence refers to the act of recalling memories from the past. It is a familiar activity to everyone, but reminiscence can be highly beneficial for people with Alzheimer’s disease. It can support self-esteem and develop interpersonal skills.

This article explains what reminiscence therapy for Alzheimer's disease is, its benefits, and types, and how to incorporate it into everyday life.

Older Black woman looking at photographs
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

What Is Reminiscence Therapy?

Reminiscence therapy was introduced in the late 1970s. It involves exchanging memories from the past to help people with dementia remember things. The treatment aims to stimulate the mind and improve general well-being.

Clinicians use reminiscence activity and therapy in clinical settings and residential care with people who have dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Caregivers and professionals can then instruct friends and relatives on participating in this exercise with their loved ones.

How Reminiscence Helps Memory

While people with Alzheimer's have difficulty with their more recent memory, they may be able to recall things from their childhood. That may be because those older memories are well-rehearsed and practiced—meaning a person has thought about and retold those events many times over many decades.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's, and reminiscence therapy is not a cure. Instead, reminiscence therapy helps people by affirming their long-term recall ability.

People with dementia often feel frustrated with their short-term memory limitations. But, by focusing on things they can remember, reminiscence therapy can help people with Alzheimer's feel a sense of mastery over their memory and cognition skills.

A 2015 meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that in older people with dementia, reminiscence therapy had a negligible effect on cognitive functions.

Other Benefits

This therapy offers a sense of value, importance, belonging, power, and peace. It can also create a feeling of intimacy and give special meaning to relationships with caregivers. Research has named the following as benefits of reminiscence therapy:

  • Helps depression: Depression is common in people with memory disorders. Some research has found that reminiscence therapy may be comparable to medication and other therapeutic approaches to treating and preventing depression in people with dementia.
  • Quality of life: Research suggests that improved quality of life is a primary outcome of reminiscence therapy. This improvement was seen not only for those treated but for the carers, as well.
  • Communication and interaction: Research indicates that reminiscence therapy may positively impact a person's communication and interaction.
  • Improved relationship with the caregiver: Some studies make a tentative suggestion that reminiscence therapy could improve a person's relationship with their caregiver. The theory is that reminiscence therapy offers an opportunity to relate to someone on a human level rather than a strictly needs-based level.

Adverse Outcomes

Research has not found evidence of adverse outcomes with the use of reminiscence therapy. However, there is a risk that recalling memories can sometimes be painful or difficult.

Types of Reminiscent Therapy

Reminiscence can be used in individual, group, or family sessions. It is generally categorized into three main types:

  • Simple reminiscence: In this type of therapy, participants reflect on the past in an informative and enjoyable way.
  • Evaluative reminiscence ("life review"): This type may be used as a life-reviewing or sometimes conflict-resolving approach.
  • Life story: This therapy aims to develop a biographical narrative that pulls together the past, present, and future. This technique may involve helping someone make a book about their life.

Occasionally, participants may recall unpleasant and stressful information. Sometimes this can be either the cause or the result of behavioral and emotional issues. Nevertheless, dealing with them can provide a resolution—a coming to terms with life events and possible closure.

A variety of mediums that use different senses can assist the act of remembering. Using different senses means that people who have difficulty communicating verbally can have the opportunity to participate in reminiscence therapy in other ways. These include:

  • Visual: Using photographs, slides, painting pictures, or looking at objects of autobiographical meaning
  • Aural: Using music such as familiar tunes from the radio, CDs, or making music using various instruments
  • Smell or taste: Using smell kits or different foods
  • Tactile: Touching objects, feeling textures, painting, or pottery

In a care facility or a professional setting, the cooperation and inclusion of relatives and friends can enhance the reminiscence time for all parties. Family and friends may be able to offer context and provide missing details to some memories.

Incorporating Reminiscence in Daily Life

You don't need to be a trained caregiver to participate in reminiscence therapy. The following are some ways that friends and family members can engage in this kind of therapy with their loved ones:

  • Ask open-ended questions: These questions request more than a "yes" or "no" answer. Follow-up questions can help keep the memories and stories flowing.
  • Leave space for emotions: Memories can sometimes be painful, but that doesn't make them "bad." If your family member starts to cry, listen, sympathize, and tell them it's OK to feel sad.
  • Use objects as prompts: Ask your friend or family member about their photographs and souvenirs.
  • Engage the senses: Smelling and tasting familiar foods, dancing, and listening to music are all examples of things that can conjure memories.

You can use this therapy throughout the day. Try asking questions during normal caregiving activities to make them more personal and pleasant. Some examples include:

  • Mealtime
  • Bathing
  • Bedtime
  • When giving medication
  • When going for a walk

A Word From Verywell

Reminiscence therapy can be a valuable tool for increasing the quality of life and self-esteem of someone living with Alzheimer's disease. In addition, it can benefit caregivers by giving them opportunities to engage with their loved ones more intimately.

When using reminiscence therapy, remember to respect the individual’s involvement and contributions. By all means, try to encourage participation, but if someone does not want to be involved in the activity, respect their right to refuse. Their refusal is valid and affirms their right to privacy, autonomy, and power over their situation.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Huang HC, Chen YT, Chen PY, et al. Reminiscence therapy improves cognitive functions and reduces depressive symptoms in elderly people with dementia: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2015;16(12):1087-1094. doi:10.1016/j.jamda.2015.07.010

  3. Macleod F, Storey L, Rushe T, McLaughlin K. Towards an increased understanding of reminiscence therapy for people with dementia: A narrative analysis. Dementia. 2021;20(4):1375-1407. doi:10.1177/1471301220941275

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By Christine Kennard
 Christine Kennard is a psychiatric nurse practicing in the United Kingdom and co-author of "Alzheimer's Disease: An A-Z For New Caregivers."