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Sharing Memories With Older Adults

Topic Overview

Sharing memories (sometimes called life review or reminiscence) helps older adults relive past events in their lives. By sharing memories, older adults can explore their thoughts and feelings about the past. They can put their past experiences in perspective with what is happening to them in the present or what is expected to happen in the future.

Usually it is easy to start a conversation with someone about past events in his or her life. Sometimes older people say they don't remember much about their past. They may also say that what happened to them is not important, because they don't want to bore someone else with their memories. You may need to encourage an older person and let him or her know that you are genuinely interested in hearing about his or her life.

When people start talking about their past, they often remember more and more experiences. After the person starts talking, there may be little left to do except encourage him or her to explain things in more detail or to ask questions about specific events or people.

To encourage an older adult to talk about the past:

  • Show your interest in the person by sitting in a relaxed manner, looking at the person, and nodding your head often. This lets the person know that you want to and have time to listen.
  • Ask for a story. Use an open-ended statement to encourage the person to share a story. You can say, "Tell me what it was like when you went to high school (first got married, started your family, started your business)." Using the words "tell me" lets the person know that you want to hear a story.
  • Ask for clarification about things you don't understand. "I don't understand what you mean. Can you tell me more about that?"
  • Show that you are following the conversation by summarizing what the other person has just told you. You might say something like, "So, after high school you and Amy got married, but you didn't live together because she was taking care of her mother and you were needed on the farm."
  • Ask how the person feels about the subject under discussion. For example, if the person has described a snowstorm that occurred when he or she was 10 years old, you might ask, "Were you afraid when it snowed for 4 days and you were without electricity?"
  • Try not to ask questions that require only a one-word answer such as "yes" or "no."

Sharing memories and stories about past events may cause some anxiety or sadness for the person who is grieving. If you notice that an older adult looks anxious or sad, mention this and ask if he or she wants to continue with the story. Most of the time, experiencing an emotion helps the person who is grieving.

If the older person looks as if he or she is getting anxious or upset, you may need to stop the conversation. You can say, "You look like you are getting more and more upset (anxious). Let's stop talking for now and talk about this later. You may need some time." After you say this, sit with the person for a short time to show that you care about him or her.

Sharing memories with older adults can be an enriching experience for both of you. The person feels accepted and cared for. You may learn some things about the person that you didn't already know and that help you better understand his or her reactions to situations, including loss. Also, the lessons you learn by listening to another person's experiences and how he or she handled them may help you in the future when you have similar experiences.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Sidney Zisook, MD - Psychiatry
Last Revised November 4, 2013

Last Revised: November 4, 2013

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