Ask a Care Manager: The use of reminiscence therapy

By From page A5 | October 18, 2017

Have you ever noticed that a particular scent could bring forth a rush of vivid memories? The smell of cookies baking might remind you of spending time at your grandmother’s house when you were a small child.

Perhaps a piece of jewelry given to you by a loved one evokes feel-good memories every time you wear it.

As humans, we often attach memories to items/things that are a representation of an experience in our lives. Simple objects, like a photograph, bracelets or even cookbook, can become resonant conveyors of meaning through their connection to an event in our lives. Remembering the past can bring lots of satisfaction and understanding for anyone. For the elderly, it is a way to affirm who they are, what they’ve accomplished in their lives and a chance to relive happy times. For those who have dementia, it is a way to talk comfortably about things they do remember.

Reminiscing has taken place since the beginning of time through the storytelling of family histories across all nations. Today’s gerontologists study the benefits of reminiscing with dementia patients because long-term memory is the last to go. By talking about their childhood and early adulthood, older adults who have dementia are more confident about socializing and using their verbal skills.

Reminiscence therapy is the process of recalling personal experiences from an individual’s past. The theory behind reminiscence therapy is that a person’s function is improved by decreasing demands on impaired cognitive abilities and capitalizing on preserved ones.

Reminiscence therapy is an excellent way to increase the capacity to communicate with people who have dementia; it alleviates depression, increases self-worth, improves self-care, increases a sense of belonging and helps cope with aging. It also provides an excellent opportunity to get to know someone on a more personal level. Reminiscing with older adults can provide them comfort, reassurance and, at times, humor.

If you are a care provider, reminiscence offers unique opportunities for the care recipients and caregivers to have positive growth experiences. In the process of sharing memories care recipients achieve a sense of integrity and self-worth, which can reinforce coping mechanisms with aging and their current status. This experience also helps the caregivers have a better understanding of the care recipients’ needs and humanize the care recipients. The caregiver’s ability to better communicate and understand care recipients can give the caregiver tools to provide better and more efficient care.

Therapy sessions may consist of individual or group settings or take place during everyday interactions and activities of daily living. Preparation begins with selecting an activity to do and of some topics to discuss during the session. Some topics may require a little online research beforehand.

A physical prompt or prop is useful in telling the story. Pictures, a vintage toy, and books are some examples. You should ask questions related to each topic, but try to remain flexible and let the conversation take its own path. Remember these items are there to get everyone talking and help engage senses that can further trigger memories and stimulate more life review.

A favorite reminiscence activity of mine is baking. This activity helps stimulate/engage our five senses: taste (grandmother’s recipes), smell (aroma of fresh-baked cookies, vanilla extract), touch (textures of oats), sound (cake mixer) and sight (cookies, ingredients). Engaging in this type of activity — making a product — will give the care recipients something to do so they can talk.

If you are worried about using a hot oven with someone with dementia here is an example of a reminiscence therapy with “no bake” baking.

Before the therapy session, have a trial run. This will help you get a better idea of how long this will take and you will have plenty of goodies to share with others (like Elder Options staff; we love sweets) or something to munch on while waiting for their cookies to cool. Original recipe makes three dozen cookies.


  • 2 cups white sugar
  •  1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 3 cups quick cooking oats
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Other items (These can also be used as tangible items)

  • Mixing bowl
  • Spatula
  • Measuring spoons
  • Pot to melt butter in
  • Wax paper gloves
  1. Mix together sugar, butter or margarine and milk in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for one minute, stirring constantly.
  2. Remove from heat and mix in cocoa, quick oatmeal and vanilla. Drop by spoonful on waxed paper. (Cut individual wax paper for each resident and write their names on it.)
  3. Chill

Tips: It’s better that you melt the butter on the stove yourself. While the butter is melting, allow the person with dementia to participate by measuring and mixing ingredients; only help if the individual asks. You can also bring some old pictures of food or baking items from the ’20s or ’30s or any items to help evoke some memories — old cookbooks, wire whiskers, baking pans, cookie cutters. Set these out on the table and allow the person with dementia to look and ask them to share stories about the time they cooked or helped in the kitchen.

Homa Rostami is an aging life care manager with Elder Options Inc. Homa has worked with Elder Options since 2015 and brings a wealth of knowledge regarding placement, community resources, dementia, end-of-life care, and chronic diseases. She earned her bachelor’s degree from University of Pacific and possess an associate’s degree in gerontology from American River College.

Special to Village Life


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