Looking back on their lives helps some seniors to move forward

Experts find technique useful in coping with grief, illness

Life After 50

Health & Fitness

March 14, 2004|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,The Hartford Courant

Looking for a way to lift your spirits and chase away the blues? The solution might be as easy as a walk down memory lane.

In senior centers, nursing homes and even Alzheimer's units, older individuals are revisiting their pasts to help make sense of the present. Experts say the technique, called "reminiscence," or "life review," can promote emotional wellness by helping individuals deal with grief, loss, illnesses and other challenges of aging.

In a group setting, seniors reflect on questions designed to stimulate memories and then share their stories, thoughts and feelings with others. The process, says Chaplain Ray Cooley, director of spiritual services at Masonic Health Care Center in Wallingford, Conn., reinforces self-esteem and self-worth in a group that often feels ignored and isolated.

"Throughout life, we draw on events in the past to cope with the ever-changing realities in our world," Cooley says. "Looking back on past experiences is an effective tool for carving out who we are and what our existence has meant and continues to mean."

Questions such as "Were you named after someone?"; "What instructions were you given growing up?"; "What did you want to be when you grew up?"; "What are some of your major losses and disappointments or joys and successes?"; "How did war affect your life?"; and "What was your first job?" encourage sharing of thoughts, attitudes and feelings. While some dismiss reminiscing as living in the past, Cooley, who lectures on the technique, says the process benefits both the teller and the listeners.

"The stories we tell are our way of looking at the meaning of life," Cooley says. "When we share them with others and them with us, we find shared experiences, as well as a sense of solidarity and bonding and respect from others who understand and value these happenings. It doesn't have to be in a formal setting. Even getting together with a friend and revisiting happy times in your life can make you feel better."

Virginia Napier, 90, is a member of "Remember When," a reminiscence group that meets at Ashlar Village in Wallingford, an independent-living complex on the Masonic Healthcare campus. Each week, the group's facilitator offers a question. Participants take 20 minutes to write their thoughts and memories, then share and discuss what they have written with the group.

"It's really not a question of living in the past," says Napier, who has saved her writings and plans to leave them to her children and grandchildren. "The questions help you understand yourself and others and can lead to some lively discussions. And what you realize is that while there have been tremendous changes in the world over the years, many things, such as family relationships and how people relate to one another, haven't changed much at all."

For example, Napier says that if today's generation feels it invented scandalous behavior, it should think again.

"What was considered scandalous may have changed, but people's reactions haven't," Napier says. "That's what's interesting about the process. You see how the past relates to the present, and it helps you understand yourself and others."

Sharon Luchen, director of recreation for the Long Term Care Unit at Masonic, says reminiscence techniques are also effective with patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease or other forms of memory loss or dementia.

"Even when short-term memory is nonexistent, long-term memory can remain," Luchen says. "Reminiscence exercises can provide intellectual stimulation and promote feelings of connection to others."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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