The spring season brings many opportunities to remember past events and create new memories. This makes it a great season for caregivers and family members to practice therapeutic storytelling and reminiscing with their loved ones with dementia, says Erica Labb, Executive Director of Bridges® by EPOCH at Westford.
“Storytelling and reminiscing have been recognized for quite some time as fantastic treatment methods for those with dementia and other forms of progressive memory loss,” she says. “They can help reduce stress, agitation and anxiety while also producing a calming influence.”
Erica says that experts have found that recalling stories and memories from the “good old days” allow those with dementia to reconnect in a social way while also unlocking psychological and physiological benefits that enhance overall well-being.
“In our community, we talk a lot about how memories and happiness in the moment can have long-lasting beneficial effects, even if the individual may not remember the experience or the conversation,” she says. “The emotions and feelings that reminiscing and storytelling produce last long after the moment and provide happiness and satisfaction for our residents – and their loved ones, too.”
How Storytelling and Reminiscing Work
Storytelling and reminiscing work for those with dementia because the areas of the brain that store long-term memory aren't affected until late in the disease's progression. Most people with memory loss will be able to remember memories from their youth and younger years much more clearly than they can anything that happened recently.
While reminiscing involves discussing memories from the past, storytelling is slightly different – it involves coming up with stories instead of talking about events that actually happened. This draws on creative thinking and problem-solving, which are incredibly beneficial for brain function. Several studies have shown that storytelling made people more engaged, alert and happier and better able to communicate with others.
Reaching into these regions of the brain that still retain a lot of function has been proven as a way to enhance the cognitive capacity of people with dementia, as well as improve their ability to participate in normal everyday activities. Individuals who participated in reminiscence and storytelling had improved moods and cognition, much more so than those who didn’t participate in these forms of therapy. Other specific benefits include:
Reduced symptoms of agitation, anxiety and depression
An increased ability to communicate, as new pathways in the brain form when an individual remembers the past
A reestablishment of meaning and increased feeling of importance
Increased self-worth and sense of belonging in the world
A relief from boredom and a distraction from issues and day-to-day problems
Reminiscence and storytelling are also effective because they can engage all five senses – something that stimulates all aspects of the brain and also gives a whole-body experience. Research has shown that activities that engage all the senses (or at least more than one) are one of the best forms of therapy and exercise to help improve cognitive function and improve well-being for those with memory issues. Through the use of sight, smell, sound, taste and touch, different memories can be brought to light and truly make the past come alive for the individual.
Tips for Spring Storytelling and Reminiscing with Your Loved One
Play favorite music.
Music is magical – it’s been proven to reside in a part of the brain that isn’t affected by dementia until the very late stages. There are many examples of people who have been unable to communicate who are suddenly able to do so after listening to favorite or meaningful songs from their pasts. Find some appropriately springy music and listen or singalong with your loved one. You can also play along with simple instruments like drums, bells or shakers.
Look at springtime photos and keepsakes.
Meaningful items or interesting pictures are an excellent way to reminisce and storytell. While photos of family, friends and life events are excellent choices, you can also look for pictures or items that remind them of favorite interests, hobbies or passions. For example, if your dad loves baseball, look through a sports magazine. If your mom loves to cook, pick up a magazine with gorgeous gourmet meals photographed.
Find cues in nature.
When it comes to storytelling especially, remember that it doesn’t have to be a true story to be engaging and beneficial. And there are plenty of storytelling cues that spring to life in spring. For example, if you’re watching the squirrels chase each other in the yard, ask “why is that squirrel chasing the other?” Or, if you see blooms starting to come up, ask “what colors will these flowers be?”
Tell your own story with sensory aids.
Find a favorite story in a book or remember a favorite memory of yours. Grab some appropriate sensory aids and tell the story to your loved one. If you remember a certain smell, bring something that evokes that (make it a nice one, please). Or if there’s an object that suggests the event, like a baseball for a baseball game, have that with you.
Smell and taste the essence of spring.
Smell is an incredibly strong sense that accesses memories almost instantly. There are many lovely smells and tastes that arrive in the springtime. Go out in the garden and collect flowers, or head to the farmers market and bring home fresh-baked treats. You can also go out walking in a nearby park or woods to get the benefit of fresh air and sunshine. Of course, baking or cooking favorite dishes and desserts is a great activity – with the bonus of being able to eat your creations afterwards.
Do tactile activities.
There are all sorts of fun activities you can do in spring, like drawing pictures outside, arranging flowers, gardening, or doing something with fabric. There are all sorts of springtime elements you can bring in for sensory stimulation, like pussy willows, fresh leaves and pretty stones. An activity can be as simple as merely handling these items and describing what you’re experiencing. You don’t have to overthink it – just enjoy the moment and add your own thoughts, and your loved one may reciprocate.
Even if your loved one can’t participate in all the same things they did before, doing things to evoke positive feelings through things they love, like playing with fabrics or smelling flowers, can arouse strong memories. Remember, reminiscing and storytelling isn’t so much about the actual destination; it’s the journey that your loved one’s mind (and yours) travels to create an enjoyable, fulfilling experience.
Comprehensive Memory Care
Bridges® by EPOCH at Westford delivers highly specialized memory care assisted living for those with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Our resident-centered approach focuses on providing dignity, purpose and moments of joy in daily life for those in all stages of the disease. We offer a wellness-focused lifestyle that centers around a resident’s current skills and abilities, not those that have been lost to dementia.
Our team members take an active role in getting to know each resident on a personal level to deliver programming that is meaningful to them. We account for the preferences, interests, needs and abilities of our residents to connect with them and encourage their involvement in daily life and boost self-esteem.
Warm, Residential Atmosphere
Featuring a stunning residential design, every inch of our community has been designed to benefit those with memory loss. Attributes such as soft colors, directional cues, aromatherapy and interactive life stations create a soothing and secure environment where residents feel comfortable, safe and at home.
Bridges® by EPOCH is New England's largest stand-alone memory care assisted living provider.
Contact us today to learn more.