People with dementia may recall joys of past holidays

Many people love the holidays because they are a time to make happy memories with loved ones.

But what if you could do something that would help restore memories in some of the people you love?

Encouraging elders to discuss memories, especially positive experiences, across their lifespan can help both the elders and their loved ones and caregivers. People who have impaired memory and dementia can sometimes reconnect with others and their own lives through prompting to recall good times.

Nearly 9 percent of American adults aged 65 and older meet criteria for dementia. Holidays can be extra stressful for people with diminished mental function, and their caregivers can also struggle.

Asking a person about different events from particular times in the person’s life can allow enjoyable memories to resurface. Older adults may already be primed to discuss holiday-themed memories due to the influx of sensory cues, including the twinkling of holiday decorations, the smell of holiday cookies, and seasonal music.

An analysis of several studies on research on reminiscence therapy for dementia suggests that it can improve quality of life, communication and mood. Individuals who engage in reminiscence therapy with their loved ones report that the experience is generally positive for them, too, and can be an effective coping strategy when other communication becomes difficult.

Another study found that caregivers reported feeling more emotionally close with their loved ones with dementia when practicing reminiscence therapy. Also, they reported lower informal care costs than caregivers who felt more distant from their loved ones.

Here are some suggestions for questions to ask older adults:

  • What were your holidays traditions when you were growing up?
  • Did you have a Christmas tree? When and who would decorate it?
  • Were there particular foods you would make and eat around the holidays?
  • Did you ever travel for the holidays?
  • What was your first holiday season with your spouse like?
  • What were your holiday traditions with your children?
  • What is your favorite New Year’s Eve memory?

Be an attentive listener. Make eye contact with your loved one, and angle your body toward theirs so that they know they have your undivided attention. Ask follow-up questions when appropriate. This indicates to your loved one that you heard what they said and are interested to know more.

Engage your loved one in low-impact activities that engage multiple senses. For example, baking holiday-themed cookies can elicit memories through touch (rolling out dough, decorating), smell (of ingredients, while baking), and taste (of the finished product).

Encourage your loved ones to be mindful of their sensory experience at each stage of the activity and ask them about any memories that the sensation might bring to mind. Use visual aids such as pictures from past holidays to help with retrieval of memories.

Listening to holiday-themed music while baking will also engage the auditory part of the brain. A 2013 study of research on music therapy for dementia concluded that music therapy can be a useful intervention in its own right.

Such reminiscences may just be the start of a new family tradition.

This article by Michael R. Nadorff of Mississippi State University is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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