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Reaching Them Beyond the Dementia by Reminiscing

August 16th, 2011

By Karen Everett Watson

For those who care for someone with dementia, it’s often a daily struggle just to communicate. It can lead to a lot of frustration for everyone involved. Many elders who have dementia just quit trying to interact. They withdraw from the world around them and from those they love. This is devastating for their mental and physical health. The good news is that you can reach your loved one by touching them where they are – in the past.

As a journalist and gerontologist, I’ve been fortunate to interview hundreds of seniors. Many of them suffered from varying degrees of dementia. But luckily for me, the information I needed to know from them was about their past. I found talking to elders about their childhood and young adult years was so easy for them to respond to!

One beautiful older woman named Ruth was especially fun to talk to. Ruth was about to turn 102 and I was writing an article about her life. She had trouble remembering if she had just ate her desert, but when I asked her where she was born, her eyes brightened and the story she told was nothing short of amazing. She described her life in San Francisco, losing her mother, being forced from the house at the age of 12, and so much more. She could describe what the city was like when she lived there. She eloquently told me how she felt when her stepmother told her to get married or just leave.

Many experts have studied the benefits of reminiscing but it doesn’t take an expert to use it to improve your relationship with your loved one. Reminiscing is just talking about the past. For those with dementia, it’s going to a place that is safe, a place where they know the answers and don’t have to be afraid of sharing their feelings.

If you plan on reminiscing with elders, there are a few tips I think will help. First of all, plan your sessions for a time of the day that your elder is most receptive. Morning hours are probably best for most, but not all. Pick a comfortable location free from distractions where they can make eye contact and hear you well. Having a table nearby is also helpful so you and your elder can enjoy a cup of tea or other refreshments. Remember, you’re not only remembering memories, your making new ones, so make it special.

Items that will facilitate reminiscing include photographs, music, old toys, books with lots of pictures, and antique household items. If you’re undecided about what to use, it’s okay to just talk. When you feel your elder is comfortable reminiscing, try tape recording their stories. It’s a great way to pass on their history to other family members and even future generations.

You can find great topics and questions for reminiscing on the Story Corps website. But here are a few I have found are golden!

  1. What’s the first home you remember as a child?
  2. Tell me about the chores you did as a child.
  3. What was your favorite thing about school?
  4. Who was your best friend when you were a child?
  5. What was your favorite vacation activity?
  6. What did you want to be when you grew up?
  7. What did your parents teach you that feel made a big difference in your life?
  8. Who was your first boyfriend/girlfriend?
  9. Where did you meet your spouse and what was your first date like?
  10. What was your favorite toy?

Don’t forget to ask them about the places where they grew up. For instance, “What was Naperville, IL like when you were a child? You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn about your parent and the history of the places where they lived.

I hope this encourages you to make these wonderful connections with your loved ones. We are all more than just who we are today. We are an accumulation of all our accomplishments and experiences. Sharing these will give us a greater understanding of each other and allow your loved ones with dementia to express themselves in a positive way.