With dementia in the driver’s seat, my grandma has good days and bad days and it can be hard to predict what each new day will bring. But over time, we’ve learned to recognize patterns and help foster the kind of environment and conversations that often inspire the good days. If we’ve picked up one most important rule of thumb, it’s to meet her where she is.
Living with dementia is isolating enough, but to have someone tell you that you’re thinking from the wrong place and time or to highlight all that you’ve forgotten can be even more distressing. Since people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia tend to have a stronger grip on long-term memories than short-term ones, it can be beneficial for us to engage with the level of clarity they find in their distant past rather than struggle to sharpen the clarity of more recent experiences.
If someone tries to tell my grandma that she’s wrong about this person’s name or that person’s intentions, she gets even more confused and anxious. But if we turn on some old, familiar music and encourage her to dance like she used to, she’ll fall right into step and insist that we keep dancing into the night—even if she’s not sure whose hands she’s holding.
Many caregivers and programs for aging adults are committing to meeting people where they are in their memories because that is where there is the best possibility for connection. Facilitating those social activities for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s can lessen feelings of isolation, relax some of their anxiety, and begin to improve their overall quality of life.
How Reminiscence Therapy Helps Adults with Dementia to Engage with Their Experiences
This year, a groundbreaking dementia and Alzheimer’s care facility is scheduled to open in San Diego. The Glenner Town Square is an indoor replica village with storefronts and other buildings designed to look like you’ve traveled back to the 1950s. Participants in this social day care program can browse shops, play with shelter dogs in the model pet store, read books in the library, and watch an old film in the cinema, among other activities relevant to the time period. Attendants in the shops and throughout the village are trained caregivers, interacting with aging participants to enhance the blast-to-the-past milieu. With the freedom to move around in a familiar environment, older adults can feel safe, grounded, and engaged in their experience and with those around them. This kind of interactive reminiscence therapy can inspire a calmer state of being and an improved mood with the need for fewer medications.
When longer-term memories are more familiar and accessible for older adults with dementia, there is a unique point of connection available to us if we can find ways to share those memories. Creating that connection is the goal of reminiscence therapy. Even if we weren’t around in the 1950s or 1960s when our loved one’s memories might be the strongest, we can still encourage those familiar memories to emerge and help older adults feel a sense of belonging. To do this, we first identify sensory triggers that spark recognition: perhaps photographs from that time, old favorite foods and recipes, songs that were popular then, and stories of events, to name just a few. Then, by sharing these things, we invite an older adult to step into those brighter memories and maybe even connect with a greater sense of self and identity in the moment.
It doesn’t necessarily take any special tools or skills to engage with an aging loved one in this way. In fact, if you can practice active listening, they’ll likely guide you toward the memories that are at the front of their mind. Reminiscence therapy could be as simple as encouraging an older adult to tell you a story from their younger days. My grandma becomes very focused and confident when she tells stories about “the war” and her involvement as a student nurse. Even, if the memories aren’t altogether pleasant, she has a grip on that reality in her mind more than she has on the family gathering that is presently happening around her. When we take time out for those reminiscent conversations, she and I connect on a stronger level, and she is calmer and more trusting of the unsettling environment she is actually in.
How Social Day Programs and Activities Give People with Dementia Freedom to Be
Socialization is a basic human need that can be easy to neglect, especially when logistical, cognitive, and mobility issues stand in the way. Loneliness and isolation among older adults lead to compounding negative effects. And people with dementia face even more complex and nuanced challenges to social engagement. With our greater understanding of how the experience of dementia works and how we can influence feelings of familiarity and connection, we are heading into an age of enlightened care and quality of life for those who struggle with memory-altering syndromes.
Institute on Aging puts enormous value on the benefits of aging adults living at home, but we also recognize that socialization can be harder to come by in that case. Opportunities like the Glenner Town Square and IOA’s Social Day Program offer regular, immersive opportunities for aging adults with dementia to engage with a community in the way that works for them. At IOA, for example, trained staff help take care of the basics of transportation, healthy meals, and personal care, so your loved one can focus solely on enjoying the program. By having an opportunity to engage and reminisce with a community of friends, older adults can feel as if they’re leading a more normal and grounded life.
Do you want to find out more about how Institute on Aging facilitates and advocates for grace in aging? If you are an older adult, caregiver, or family member, our programs, services, and resources may be the keys to your enhanced quality of life. Get in touch with us today at 415-750-4111 to find out how.