With the wealth of experiences older people have to draw from, reminiscing can provide personal pleasure, interesting details for their families, and an outlet for communication with their peers. Offering a variety of activities for reminiscing can help fill an elderly person’s day with meaning. In "The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Ageing," published by Yale University Press, psychologist Douwe Draaisma writes that memories from childhood and early adulthood become even more vivid with age. Keep in mind that it may take some time and experimentation to determine which reminiscing activities for the elderly will appeal to any particular individual.
Let There Be Music
According to research conducted by Elizabeth T. Cady, Richard Jackson Harris and J. Bret Knappenberger, music is an effective way to spur memories of specific lifetime periods.To cue these memories, play popular songs from the years in which senior citizens were teenagers and young adults. Provide written lyrics and encourage individuals to sing along, then share memories that the songs evoke. Some people might like to dance to the music, which may evoke additional memories. Ask people to talk about the role music played in their lives: Were they in the school band? Did they sing in a church choir? Did they teach their children little songs?
Remembering with the Nose
The sense of smell is powerful and often evokes very specific memories, reveals research conducted by Amy Wrzesniewski, Clark McCauley and Paul Rozin. To use odors to evoke memories, fill small bottles with a variety of strongly scented substances and let people react to each one individually before moving on to the next one; possibilities include such choices as lilac hand lotion, vanilla extract, peppermint extract, Limburger (or other strong cheese) or peanut butter. Encourage individuals to not only identify the smell but to also share a memory each one evokes: a grandmother’s garden or baking cookies with a parent, for example.
Give people a list of Academy Award nominees and winners from 40 years ago and ask them to circle ones they remember. Check out some of the most popular ones from the library and show little clips from each. Generate a discussion about where everyone went to the movies, how much it cost, who they would usually go with, as well as who their favorite movie stars were and why. If compatible with their dietary needs, serve popcorn to help evoke those memories.
Past World Events
Show photos and/or newspaper headlines recalling significant world events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and President Kennedy’s assassination. Ask people to share where they were at the time they heard the news and how the event personally affected them. Throw out terms like “the Cold War” or “the Civil Rights Movement” and ask what those phrases mean to them.
Thousand Word Pictures
It is especially true for the elderly that a picture -- in the form of a photo -- can be worth a thousand words. Concentrating on just one snapshot, it’s possible to evoke dozens of memories. A group of people might sit in a circle, each holding a photo taken when they were young adults. Go around the circle and ask each woman, for example, to describe her hairstyle, if she cut it herself or went to a salon, and (if the photos are in black and white) what color her hair was. Men might tell where they bought their clothes and if they were dressed for work in the photo (and if so, what kind of work) or leisure. For group photos, ask participants to identify people in the photos and explain their relationship to each one.
- Activities for the Elderly: A Guide to Quality Programming; Sandra D., Parker, and Cheryl L., Burke; 1993
- Psychology of Music; Elizabeth T. Cady, Richard Jackson Harris and J. Bret Knappenberger
- Yale University: Odor and Affect: Individual Differences in the Impact of Odor on Liking for Places, Things and People
- New Scientist: Memory Loss and Memories Found in Ageing Brains
Peggy Epstein is a freelance writer specializing in education and parenting. She has authored two books, "Great Ideas for Grandkids" and "Family Writes," and published more than 100 articles for various print and online publications. Epstein is also a former public school teacher with 25 years' experience. She received a Master of Arts in curriculum and instruction from the University of Missouri.
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