Heather White

Life Story Recorder, Family Echoes


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Is reminiscence good for people over the age of 60?

As we get older it seems that our thoughts naturally tend to flow back to past times - the good, the bad and the ugly. It is universally acknowledged that grandparents spend hours telling (and retelling) their grandchildren stories of their youth.

Jane Fonda's TED Talk focuses on this aspect of life as being a normal, natural and necessary process which is highly beneficial for the mental health and well being of older people.

Reminiscence Therapist make a case that allowing older people to reminisce can reduce depression and delay dementia. It may also help to reunify estranged families, since it is only when people move past life's competitive stage that they are able to reflect on past mistakes and be humble enough to accept responsibility for them, and seek forgiveness. Such scenarios are likely to be highly beneficial to younger family members who will experience the unifying power of honesty, humility and forgiveness.

Hospice workers also report that reminiscence can help dying people come to terms with their life and gain a sense of completion - reducing death anxiety.

What are your experiences of older people reminiscing?

In a world with an increasing older population Is Reminiscence Therapy worth investing in?

  • May 2 2013: I think it'd be great if we all listened a little more. By reminiscence therapy I assume you mean family members sitting down and talking about the good old times, right? Sounds good to me. I don't think we need a government program or a profession though.
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      May 2 2013: Yes, Scot, its the therapeutic value of remembering and talking while being listened to. I wouldn't agree with listeners having to be registered by some government regulatory body!
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      May 3 2013: "I don't think we need a government program or a profession though"

      I don't either. But someone brought up the point of those in elder care.
      Many times when I have visited friends in Adult Living Facilities I have noticed that many of the elderly want a listening ear.

      I have at times been surrounded by six elderly women all vying for my time....it has been a totally rewarding experience.......it's like being a diplomat at some world conference, giving each representative floor time, and showing them how they are all interconnected..........the best part is, by the time I'm ready to leave, I am no longer needed.......they remain talking amongst themselves. :)
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    May 14 2013: Heather, I'm so sorry this conversation did not keep on going.....there are so many conversations on TED.....after a while they fall by the wayside.

    But let me just say, that I really enjoyed reading everybody's answers, as well as participating in it.

    Be Well,
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    May 6 2013: I had a good friend in her 80's who would reminisce for hours about her childhood and 20's. It was fascinating to me that she could remember vivid details from 75 years earlier yet I often had to remind her to put her teeth in!
    Her reminiscing could go on for literally hours. While her stories were very interesting there were times that it was extremely frustrating as I didn't want to interrupt her but I really needed to go home or get her home. I came to suspect that my friend wasn't telling me these stories as much as she was engaged in heavy introspection.
    I did love listening to her and in time I came to realize that was my role in her life. Her family was too busy to sit and listen to her so I embraced it. I do believe that she needed to tell those stories, share those times, almost as a form of processing. I learned a lot from her and I am now the keeper of those memories. I have a feeling that I heard things that perhaps she had never shared before. Writing this has reminded me of a few of the incredible doozies she shocked me with! Those were the stories that were worth sitting through...the kind that knocked me off my chair and made me see me see my fragile, eccentric friend for the well-rounded, incredibly experienced, fabulous human being that she was. Here's to you Margaret ~ you would have loved TED!
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      May 6 2013: Lori de Wet,

      What your friend did was more than reminiscing. The neural networks in her brain were getting erased and as if her brain knew it, she was reliving the long lost moments of her life by verbalizing the memories. You are very right to realize that she was not merely telling you, she herself was listening to herself.

      You did an act of great kindness and please make no mistake about it (though I believe you never felt that way since you took her as your friend). I don’t believe in God or else I would have said: may God bless you.
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    May 6 2013: The smell of mown hay, woodsmoke, freshly made bread seems to bring about a tsunami of vivid reminiscences for me, of when I used to work on a farm in Northern England. I'm immediately transported back to that happy time and that beautiful place. Music from that era does exactly the same.

    A 're-living' of past experiences can certainly have a profound and beneficial effect on people with mental health problems - even more so if the appropriate senses are stimulated in the same way as when they were first experienced.

    If therapy could be tailored to patient's reminiscences as a multi-sensory experience (not just reliant on talking - though that would still help), it could transform someone who would otherwise seem to be locked in by their illness. Take a look at these two mentally ill people who clearly come alive after listening to music from their era:


    Mental agility and even physical movement is partially restored - even for the period after listening to the iPod.

    Judging by what I've seen and personally experienced, I would say that Reminiscence Therapy is money very well spent.
  • May 3 2013: I've seen kids in grade 1 reminisce about the good ole' days when they didn't have to go to school and could sit around in their underwear all morning eating fruit loops and watching cartoons.
    I told them to hold that thought because they will be able to do that again after they retire.

    I think its natural to review our lives to date to help use process the big picture of where we are in the world.
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      May 4 2013: LOL.....I just could not stop laughing. So true!!
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    May 3 2013: Hi Heather,

    I have so many different thoughts on this topic.
    I'll focus on one.

    We have several old friends and family members. I'll share my experience with one of them. Our visits go like this....Interchange of hellos, question and answer session about our health, bam.......something triggers an old memory, and off they go into the past......60, 70 years back they go. And each time we visit, it is these same stories we hear over and over. Sometimes we will hear a new one, but usually it is the retelling of the same stories over and over. We all sit patiently, and act as if it is the first time we are hearing the stories.

    We're not quite sure about the state of mind of the individual. They have tested negative for alzheimers, but perhaps it is some other dementia.

    I will say, however, that the individual has always been a "caretaker of the past".........It seems that their entire life they have preferred to discuss the past......they have never been goal oriented, or enjoyed talking about new ideas, or events. Usually when conversations got started about something interesting that was happening in someone's life, a connection to the past was quickly made, and the conversations were moved in a different direction. They have simply lived in the past.

    I have often spoken about this to members of my family. I really cannot explain why that individual has been like that their entire life. And now of course, this habit seems magnified 100x's stronger.

    Psychologically, it is therapeutic to go back to the past and revisit it.........but if the past is somewhat hurtful, and we feel like victims of our past, then perhaps we need to find a way to 'let go', and move forward? The sooner we do this, the healthier our old age will be, this is mho.

    I think the elderly do need a listening ear, whether it is to discuss the past, or the present, or the future.....but then again, don't all of us need one too? :)
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    May 2 2013: One good aspect;
    Something I’m doing and recommend is recording your parent’s reminiscences: I started my family tree last year and parent’s reminiscences a good source of information, and I believe my future descendants will enjoy them.
    Who would not love to hear the reminiscences of their 12th great grandparents?

    I question if it is mentally healthy or not, but I is going to happen so find benefit in it. I know learning something totally new is healthy, old music can help many with dementia. With it being such a natural process people go through in ever part of the world, I defiantly don’t think we should fight or discourage it.
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      May 2 2013: Yes,

      Voices are so evocative.

      My mother left a message on my answer phone a few days before she died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism - unfortunately, my phone service provider erased it after 21 days so I lost it in the end.

      With digital recording our descendents should get a good idea of our personalities as well as just our physical image. It's how we laugh, our accent and turn of phrase that will be financing.

      Enjoy your recordings.
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      May 3 2013: You bring up a very good point, that of recording the past.

      I have often told my parents to write down their memories.
      They have so very many stories from their past, and some are quite amazing.

      I am always in awe of all the suffering they underwent while growing up.

      Perhaps buying a recorder, and recording them as they talk is what we should do.
  • May 2 2013: What a great conversation, Heather.
    I had no idea that "Reminiscence Therapy" existed, and am happy to know it does!

    I once read a list of things to do to make your life better, and one of those things was: "Talk more to people under 6 and over 60". I couldn't agree more. And, in general, I find it easier and more enjoyable to strike up a conversation that has more depth than simply observing the weather with someone over 60 than someone my own age...

    In a few days, Holland will be celebrating Liberation Day. It's always a touchy subject, and I can imagine that reminiscing about the war and its horror isn't necessarily something people look forward to doing...

    My father-in-law was a 'pale nose' during the last few years of WW2. He told us about it in detail - how a teenage German soldier 'looked the other way' when he stole a potato, how his mother prepared boiled sugar beets that tasted to him like heaven, how he saw grown men eat whole sticks of butter in the rations line.
    When he was 11, he was invited, along with thousands of other children, to go to England during the 'hunger winter' in Holland. He would reminisce about his experiences there, again in great detail.
    Some 60 years after the war ended, he and my husband went back to that town in England. He remembered the building he stayed in, the bridge that crossed the water, he even remembered which direction the river was flowing.

    I am convinced it was therapeutic for him to revisit that place in person, but sharing his experiences throughout his life is what helped him find closure before he died a few years ago.
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      May 2 2013: This is an awesome story - and I'm sorry for your loss. I'm glad he found talking about his war time experiences beneficial. Clearly, you and your husband have benefited too. These stories will, no doubt, pass down your family.

      I totally agree with you about small talk being really boring. Older people have such amazing stories to tell and they don't mince their words either!

      My father was in the RAF during WW2. He joined up in 1936 when he was only 17. He said, "the writing was on the wall" and he wanted to be well training before the fighting started. His father had just died in 1935 from the effect of breathing in poison gas during WW1, so you can imagine how raw he felt.

      It was amazing to hear about his exploits in north Africa, Italy and after D-Day in Europe. He did air photo reconnaissance amongst other equally hair raising stuff. Like you, I'm glad I know my families stories.
      • May 3 2013: War stories can be inspiring, and teach us so much we still have to learn about ourselves...

        I also remember listening to my Grandma sharing stories about the jazz scene in the 'roaring 20's' in Chicago. They lived in an apartment owned by Al Capone! My grandfather was an artist, she was a film critique. Their lives in the artsy, sometimes flashy, sometimes dodgy 'underground' during those years send chills down my spine!
        My other Grandmother reminisced with me about her days as a secretary in downtown Chicago. Her gloves had to match her shoes and her bag. She taught me shorthand... when she was suffering from Alzheimer's, she would tell more stories about those years to us, in even greater detail, although she didn't know who she was telling them to...

        My mom just turned 65, and reminiscing with her about her childhood teaches me about where I come from, and how I can teach my children where they came from, keep them connected with their American heritage while we live in Europe. The fact that those memories are often exchanged via Skype doesn't diminish their importance in any way!
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          May 3 2013: Wow, you have amazing family stories! It's fantastic you have been able to collect them. What will you do with them? Will you write them down, or will you simply retell them to your children when the time comes?

          I guess it's always the case, but our grandparents generation seem to have lived such extra-ordinary lives. Obviously because of the wars, but also socially - what huge changes women live thorough - matching hat, gloves and handbag! I wonder what they would think of modern women's style? :-)
      • May 3 2013: What a good question, Heather - my parents are putting together a website dedicated to my grandfather's contribution to the art world. But I will certainly give some thought to how to keep all the stories alive for my kids. So much change in just one generation... there's a lesson or two in there, for sure!
  • May 2 2013: How strange that this past week I had already begun re-programming old behaviors in certain situations to gain power that was not there before. Confirmation--in this visit to Ted--offers the fire to continue with confidence. Anna Pat
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    May 1 2013: You are right that as we grow older, there is more to reminisce about! Some people spend so much time thinking about the past, in fact, that they miss opportunities to live in the present. Others try not to think about the past because of horrors and losses, even though they survived them. I had relatives who spoke of WW2 as their glories days in the service and others who tried as much as possible not to remember their war experiences, what they had to survive.

    I don't think that one needs to reach a point of seniority "to be able to reflect on past mistakes and be humble enough to accept responsibility for them and seek forgiveness." I think one can do this over the lifetime. I don't know whether it makes sense for people in their final days to focus on seeking forgiveness. What they should be thinking about might depend on a variety of factors.

    Reminiscence- the recalling of memories- is part of human nature and is often done within families and among old friends. Most often, I think, it is focused on remembering interesting or happy times or events that, whether correctly remembered or not, form a kind of simplifying narrative that helps people feel coherent.

    People's interest in looking backward is surely at the root of the various memoir writing activities in which people engage as well as the scrap-booking phenomenon that was huge some years ago- perhaps still. Daniel Kahneman's TED talk is about how it is the memories of events rather than the experiences themselves that we actually value.

    Because reminiscing is an activity that has over the centuries been a part of family life, I don't see that commercializing services to help people reminisce adds beauty or meaning to it and may well subtract beauty and meaning from it.

    When I am old I would not want to retain a therapist to help me reminisce. I am happy to rely on my three children and on myself when the time comes. Others may make other choices
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      May 2 2013: HI Fritzie, Thanks for kicking off the debate.

      I'm neither for nor against reminiscence therapy. It appears to have developed in the US, as many therapies do. I read an article about it recently and found it fascinating.

      There's a huge debate going on in the UK about how society treats older people. There has been a number of scandals concerning poor care in hospitals and the ill treatment of clients in "care" homes. Further more dementia is going to become a major problem for the NHS in an ageing society.

      My main concern is the isolation of older people. Adult children often live many miles away and can't look after or visit as much as previous generations, so it may not be family who provides the natural listening function. Hence my question.
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        May 2 2013: I agree with you that there are many lonely people living in care homes. The staff is often stretched to the limit and unable to offer the level of human interaction from which these elderly people would benefit. I wonder whether these homes, which are typically for profit businesses, have seen that the families who are their customers are unwilling to pay more for a level of care that involves higher staffing ratios.
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          May 2 2013: It's funny how it always boils down to money - yes you're correct. If care homes provided quality mental stimulation for those they care for they would in effect be providing reminiscence therapy. Like you, I'm not keen to change something that should come naturally to a caring human being into a professionalised closed shop. I don;t actually think that is what is happening over in the USA. I think they call in Reminiscence Therapy because the process of remembering and being listened to has been found to have positive psychological benefits in older people.

          Perhaps we could send teenagers from our local collages to listen to our older folk. A win win perhaps? I know this happens on a short project basis in many colleges already, but it's a longer term quality relationship that many older people crave - and so do many of our teens. Just a thought.
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      May 3 2013: I don't think that one needs to reach a point of seniority "to be able to reflect on past mistakes and be humble enough to accept responsibility for them and seek forgiveness."

      I agree. This is part of human nature.
      Some people, though, cannot let go of the past, and live in it.
      Sometimes as a victim, sometimes they simply are proud of past accomplishments, and never continue to grow.

      In the elderly, reaching into the past could be a sign of different things.