Our parents are the most familiar people in the world, but sometimes they can be the most mysterious as well. Whether you’re completing a family legacy project or looking for things to talk about while visiting or providing daily care, it begs the question: how well do we really know our elders? Who is Mom as a person? What was Dad like when he was growing up? What experiences most impacted their lives? What were their hopes, dreams and regrets?
As adults, it is easy to assume that we know everything about our parents or grandparents and that we have already heard all their stories. The truth is that many of us don’t ask our elders nearly enough about their lives, especially as they get older. There’s no better way to become closer to a person, even if you’ve known them since you were born.
The Benefits of Reminiscing for Seniors
This process of reflecting on past experiences can greatly benefit older adults personally as well. Dr. Robert N. Butler, a notable physician, gerontologist, psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize winner, first contemplated the reasons for increased reminiscence among seniors in 1963. Butler continued researching this phenomenon of elders reflecting on past experiences and began using the term “life review” to describe the process.
Sadly, he also noted that society holds an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards aging and often undermines the value of seniors and their unique perspectives. Too many recounted memories or musings are brushed off or ignored as senile ramblings when they should be encouraged and listened to.
Butler maintained that life reviews, especially when done in one-on-one sessions and with groups, were therapeutic. These sessions enable older adults to freely share their memories, pass on the wisdom that comes with age, better understand their lives and identities, resolve past conflicts, and connect respectfully with others on a social and often emotional level.
Structured reminiscence can be a valuable method of engaging with seniors who have varying levels of cognitive impairment as well. Elder care professionals often use different themes, activities and even props, such as past music, movies, photographs and other special memorabilia, to help trigger memories and encourage conversation. Research has shown that reminiscence group therapy can help reduce symptoms of depression and improve self-esteem and life satisfaction.
Reminiscing with an Aging Loved One
AgingCare.com has compiled the following list of questions that our elder care experts and editors would most like to ask their own parents. This list can help you start your own structured reminiscing session with an elder and spur conversation topics you’d like to talk about. Try using old photo albums, scrapbooks, music, TV shows or other meaningful materials as supplements. Gather multiple generations to stress the importance of preserving the family history through these conversations. Everyone might gain a new appreciation for their elder in the process.
Interview Questions for Elders
- In what ways do you think I’m like you? And not like you?
- Who is the person who influenced your life the most?
- Do you have a lost love?
- Which new technology have you found most helpful in your life? Which do you find to be the most annoying?
- Is there anything you have always wanted to tell me but never have?
- Is there anything you regret not having asked your parents?
- Do you wish anything had been different between us, or would you still like to change something?
- What was the happiest moment of your life?
- What are you most proud of?
- How did your experience in the military mold you as a person?
- What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
- What is your earliest memory?
- Did you receive an allowance as a child? How much? Did you save your money or spend it?
- Who were your friends when you were growing up?
- What was your favorite thing to do for fun (hobbies, beach, etc.)?
- What was school like for you as a child? What were your best and worst subjects? What did you eat for lunch?
- What school activities and sports did you participate in?
- Do you remember any fads from your youth? Popular hairstyles? Clothing?
- What world events had the most impact on you?
- How would you like to be remembered?
Sources: The life review: An interpretation of reminiscence in the aged (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-662-38534-0_20); Robert N. Butler, MD (January 21, 1927–July 4, 2010): Visionary Leader (https://academic.oup.com/gerontologist/article/54/1/6/557321); Effect of integrative reminiscence therapy on depression, well-being, integrity, self-esteem, and life satisfaction in older adults (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439760.2014.936968?src=recsys); Benefits of Reminiscence Therapy (https://eldercarealliance.org/blog/benefits-reminiscence-therapy/)