This is the purpose of Reminiscence Therapy, which the American Psychological Association defines as, “the use of life histories — written, oral, or both — to improve psychological well-being. The therapy is often used with older people.”
Gerontologist Robert Butler, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning 1975 book, Why Survive? Being Old in America and founding director of the National Institute on Aging, established Alzheimer’s disease research as a priority. Dr. Butler is credited with pioneering Reminiscence Therapy in the 1960s.
The Power of the Mind
The mind’s effect on health and well-being has long been a subject of both intrigue and study. Back in 1981, a Harvard psychologist wanted to explore whether inhabiting a bygone era would have a positive effect on healthy men in their seventies. They didn’t have dementia, but they did have many signs of aging, including arthritis and hearing loss.
Since she didn’t have a time machine, the psychologist brought the eight volunteers to a house that had been retrofitted to resemble 1959, right down to the black-and-white TV featuring movies and news from that period, along with photos of their younger selves. The men were treated as if they were 22 years younger, and instructed only to discuss what was relevant to their life and times in 1959.
Before and after the experiment, the research team tested the septuagenarians on a number of biomarkers, including hearing, vision, memory and cognition, grip strength, and flexibility. After a week’s immersion in their younger selves, the men showed improvement in many of these metrics. They were more flexible, more agile — and had better eyesight. People said they even looked younger.
Astonishingly, these men, some of who had been walking with canes five days earlier, engaged in a spontaneous game of touch football as they waited for the bus to take them “back” to 1981!
What we believe about ourselves appears to have a rejuvenating effect on our minds and bodies.
Living in the Past in the Present
Other experiments are attempting to literally return elders to the past — again, not with a time machine, but via “Dementia Villages”, which are simulated, indoor towns that replicate small-town America.
The concept, pioneered in the Netherlands, provides a safe space for people with dementia to enjoy as normal a life as possible. With yesteryear-themed design conducive to Reminiscence Therapy, these dementia villages aim to calm and comfort those with memory loss by providing familiar features from the past: cars from the 1950s, a black-and-white movie theatre, and even a working diner.
(The 1950s are the key era for people who are in their 70s to 90s now, because this time period returns them to when they were between ten and 30 years old, which is when our strongest memories form.)
Japan, one of the longest-lived countries on Earth, where one in five adults is projected to have dementia by 2025, has gone a step further, instituting community-based programs in which the general population is responsible for those with dementia, like a very large extended family. Community residents can train to become “dementia supporters” who patrol neighborhoods and, when they encounter someone who appears wandering or confused, gently guide them home.
Aretha Franklin had it right: respect is essential, especially when it comes to memory care. All of these experiments, from the men immersed in 1959, to Dementia Villages and dementia towns, hold elders in high regard.
And new research from Yale University verifies the value in honoring and respecting our elders: how people perceive age affects whether or not they develop dementia. Positive beliefs about age and aging protect against dementia — even among seniors at high risk.
In terms of Reminiscence Therapy for seniors with dementia, one important question has been whether it’s the therapy itself, or simply the increase in social interaction, leads to cognitive and behavioral improvement.
Two studies, in 2007 and 2008, tested a group treated with Reminiscence Therapy and a control group that discussed everyday topics. Both reached the same conclusion: the seniors with dementia who received Reminiscence Therapy had stronger verbal skills, were happier, with improved quality of life, compared with their pre-treatment and with the control groups.
Here at The Kensington, we understand how memory loss affects everyone involved, and have designed a memory care program to support your entire family. We provide a full spectrum of customized, loving care that adapts to your loved one’s changing needs, in an appropriate environment that’s very much like the dementia neighborhoods just described.
Our safe, enriching senior living community meets residents where they are, celebrating who they have been at earlier stages of their lives, as well as who they are right now.