Topic Overview

Sharing memories (sometimes called life review or reminiscence) helps
older adults relive past events in their lives. By sharing memories, older
adults can explore their thoughts and feelings about the past. They can put
their past experiences in perspective with what is happening to them in the
present or what is expected to happen in the future.

Usually it is easy to start a conversation with someone about past
events in his or her life. Sometimes older people say they don’t remember much
about their past. They may also say that what happened to them is not
important, because they don’t want to bore someone else with their memories.
You may need to encourage an older person and let him or her know that you are
genuinely interested in hearing about his or her life.

When people start talking about their past, they often remember more
and more experiences. After the person starts talking, there may be little left
to do except encourage him or her to explain things in more detail or to ask
questions about specific events or people.

To encourage an older adult to talk about the past:

  • Show your interest in the person by sitting in a
    relaxed manner, looking at the person, and nodding your head often. This lets
    the person know that you want to and have time to listen.
  • Ask for a
    story. Use an open-ended statement to encourage the person to share a story.
    You can say, “Tell me what it was like when you went to high school (first got
    married, started your family, started your business).” Using the words “tell
    me” lets the person know that you want to hear a story.
  • Ask for
    clarification about things you don’t understand. “I don’t understand what you
    mean. Can you tell me more about that?”
  • Show that you are following
    the conversation by summarizing what the other person has just told you. You
    might say something like, “So, after high school you and Amy got married, but
    you didn’t live together because she was taking care of her mother and you were
    needed on the farm.”
  • Ask how the person feels about the subject
    under discussion. For example, if the person has described a snowstorm that
    occurred when he or she was 10 years old, you might ask, “Were you afraid when
    it snowed for 4 days and you were without electricity?”
  • Try not to
    ask questions that require only a one-word answer such as “yes” or “no.”

Sharing memories and stories about past events may cause some anxiety
or sadness for the person who is grieving. If you notice that an older adult
looks anxious or sad, mention this and ask if he or she wants to continue with
the story. Most of the time, experiencing an emotion helps the person who is

If the older person looks as if he or she is getting anxious or
upset, you may need to stop the conversation. You can say, “You look like you
are getting more and more upset (anxious). Let’s stop talking for now and talk
about this later. You may need some time.” After you say this, sit with the
person for a short time to show that you care about him or her.

Sharing memories with older adults can be an enriching experience for
both of you. The person feels accepted and cared for. You may learn some things
about the person that you didn’t already know and that help you better
understand his or her reactions to situations, including loss. Also, the
lessons you learn by listening to another person’s experiences and how he or
she handled them may help you in the future when you have similar

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ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD – Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Sidney Zisook, MD – Psychiatry

Current as ofOctober 6, 2017