Reminiscence: An Important Task for Older Adults

All people anticipate future events and “think back through” their past experiences. Throughout life we draw upon events in the past to attempt to cope with the ever-changing realities in our world. We use past experiences to illuminate problems of the present. Reminiscence or life review is one of the primary tools for carving out who we are and what our existence means.

The two and a half year old reminisces about being a baby through pretending: “I’m a baby, I can’t walk.”

The older teenager reminisces about the dating game as an expert: “When I first started dating…”

Young parents review their social life before they became parents: “Remember the time we drove to Houston just for dinner?”

The middle-aged adult may recall the job promotion: “When they called me in for that interview, I was really nervous.”

The older adult may spend time remembering a significant event: “During the depression…”

While the young child may be considered “cute,” the older adult may be considered “a bore who dwells on the past.” We tend to associate reminiscing in the aged as symptomatic of a problem rather than as the normal behavior it is. Many older people avoid talking about the past so others won’t regard them as senile.

The research on reminiscing demonstrates that age may not be the main factor accounting for the amount of time a person spends reminiscing. Rather life situation or circumstances may be more significant, particularly during periods of stress or transition. In one study, the youngest residents of an institution were more likely to be oriented toward the past than were the oldest residents. Reminiscence may become a tool for adaptation to a present quite unlike one’s past. Researchers have suggested that under such circumstances, the individual is forced to shift from the active role of mastering his environment to a more passive orientation that values the world of inner experience. Thus, reminiscence becomes a mechanism for coping with change.

Reminiscing with another person or in a group can be therapeutic because the process of sharing memories helps individuals achieve a sense of integrity and self worth. Reminiscing serves several functions for the older person including:

  1. promoting self understanding;
  2. preserving personal and collective history;
  3. transcending the material world and physical limitations;
  4. allowing for identification of universal themes of humanity; and
  5. reinforcing coping mechanisms.

Opening the door to the past can begin with such questions as: “Tell me about your family” or “Tell me about the work you’ve done during your life.” Questions that are “open-ended” are the most useful in drawing out a person’s thoughts. These questions cannot be answered with a mere yes or no. They require greater elaboration which allows the listener or listeners to add experiences or ask additional questions.

The listener’s own curiosity and genuine interest is the key to finding questions which draw out a person’s thoughts and experiences. What is it that you would like to know about this individual? Are there common experiences such as marriage, work, the first car you owned, or the depression that can be discussed?

Reminiscing may focus on the person’s life in great detail from the early years through the present. What is important to remember in opening these doors to the past is that not all memories will be pleasant. Be sensitive to those subjects that a person would rather not discuss. You may want to ask if the person wishes to continue talking about the subject another time. Respect the person’s right to privacy, but on the other hand, be available if the person wants to reopen the subject. Confidentiality is very important to maintain. Gossiping with other residents or friends about a difficult point in a person’s life will cause you to forfeit any trust you have gained.

Reminiscing can be a successful group activity. It can focus around a specific time period in the past or around such life experiences and events as birthdays, living on a farm, having children or favorite toys and games. Some pointers for working with a group are given below.

  • Provide a comfortable, warm, well-lit room with a minimum of extraneous noise. Use this room each time the group meets.
  • Five or six participants is considered the ideal size for a reminiscing group. Include both men and women when possible.
  • Ask relevant questions at important points in his/her story.
  • Do not interrupt but wait for a natural pause.
  • Provide time for each person to express him or her self as they desire.
  • Phrase questions carefully so that if a person doesn’t remember information, he or she will not lose face.
  • Respect sensitive or uncomfortable areas or topics. Never push a person to “reveal” something they don’t want to.
  • Provide or ask participants to bring props to serve a catalysts in stimulating memories.
  • Assist confused individuals (who may repeat) to focus on his or her thoughts by encouraging the selection and elaboration of a particular memory.

Reminiscence groups may be either ongoing or for a limited time period. As the group comes to a close, the feelings of separation must be dealt with. Leaders of reminiscing groups may disclose their own sense of loss. They may emphasize that they will cherish memories of each individual and that they appreciate the sharing that has taken place.

Reminiscence helps individuals sum up their life and put the various pieces in order. Through this process peace can be achieved.

[back to top]


Last updated: 31 October, 2013

Educational programs of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, genetic information or veteran status.