Life Review and Reminiscence: Essential Tasks For Positive Aging

Reminscing with book - senior womanYou probably know from personal experience that reminiscence is something we all do. Heck, my three-year-old starts plenty of sentences by saying, “When I was a baby, I….” – it seems to be her way of making sense of where she is in the world now. The same happens on the eve of graduation for high school seniors, at wedding rehearsal dinners for brides and grooms, and for people of all ages and stations at birthday and anniversary parties, awards ceremonies, and retirement celebrations. We all have a need to review our pasts as we head into the future.

For seniors, though, life review and reminiscence are a key component of aging and ending life well. What are life review and reminiscence? And what makes them so important?

Why Does This Matter?

Although we all look back on our lives as a way of dealing with the present and looking to the future, older adults and people with life-limiting illnesses have a developmental need to look back on their lives. Psychological theorist Erik Erikson named the developmental stage for people aged 65 and older as Ego Integrity vs. Despair. In this period, people look back to determine whether they’ve led happy, successful lives. If they feel that they’ve been successful and productive, they develop feelings of contentment and “integrity,” but if they see their lives as being unsuccessful, they may feel depression and “despair” instead.

Life review and reminiscence processes can help older adults complete this important developmental task of contemplating on one’s life, and can help people to reframe and resolve past events and relationships that may be contributing to depression and despair in the present. Many researchers have examined life review and reminiscence in various contexts, and studies have indicated that these processes can decrease depression and obsessive reminiscence, and increase self-esteem, quality of life, and a sense of well-being.

Life review and reminiscence can be formal processes or informal, spontaneous or planned, and superficial or really deep in their exploration of conflicts and relationships. When thinking about these processes of looking back on one’s life, it is helpful to make some distinctions.

What’s The Difference?

Life review and reminiscence are two terms that are often used interchangeably, even by researchers and academics. There are some differences to note, however, especially if you are a clinician using these interventions with clients.

Reminiscence often refers to a more more informal, spontaneous process that can happen anytime, anywhere, and with anybody. Reminiscence often stays on a pretty superficial level, with an emphasis on recalling happy memories and simpler times – the famed “golden years” – without so much effort spent on examining and resolving past conflicts and regrets. Reminiscence is the word that comes to mind when I think about my grandfather paging through his photo albums with me and telling stories about the folks in the pictures. We weren’t really interested in learning about specific events in his past so much as enjoying time together.

Life review, on the other hand, can be more formal, structured, and comprehensive than reminiscence. Researchers have developed formal protocols for structured life review, meant to be implemented by psychotherapists and other trained professionals helping older adults dealing with clinical depression or dementia. These protocols may include step-by-step review of the major events of a person’s life, starting at the beginning, rather than focusing on the highlights, as might happen in informal reminiscence. Often, these approaches are also meant to help people uncover and work through past conflicts and regrets. Because this can be difficult work, this kind of life review process is best facilitated by a professional – someone who can support a person through this exploration of difficult issues without judgment or condemnation, and eventually enabling that person to find resolution.

If you are a clinician, you should make a distinction in your documentation regarding which processes you are using with clients. Outside of the clinic, though, it doesn’t matter much which term you use, and many researchers and academics use these terms interchangeably anyway. What matters is that those of us who love elders should be finding ways to help them share their stories and review their pasts.

How Can I Help?

If you want to help seniors with this important developmental task, what are the best ways to do it? In my next two posts, I’ll give you some concrete tips on how to facilitate reminiscence with the older adults in your life.

Until then, leave a comment below with your favorite way to spark reminiscence or a story of how reminiscence made a difference for you.

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Song Spotlight: “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm?”

  • Mood: Lighthearted, Goofy
  • Themes: Country life vs. City life, Returning from War
  • Tempo: Upbeat
  • Genre/style: 1920s popular song

Something you find out about songs is that if you ponder them long enough and share them with enough people, multiple layers of meaning begin to emerge. Those layers may be deliberate on the part of the songwriter, or they may come from the personal experiences of the individual hearing the song or the context in which they hear it. Today’s song spotlight is on the 1919 song “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm,” and it works in two ways, one that is more on the surface level, and one that is more profound. I’ll start with the easy one.

If you take this song at face value, with 21st century eyes, it’s just a goofy song about returning to farm life after spending time in the big city. Here’s the chorus:

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?

How ya gonna keep ’em away from Broadway, jazzin’ around and painting the town?

How ya gonna keep ’em away from harm? That’s a mystery.

They’ll never wanna see a rake or plow

And who the deuce can “parley-voo” a cow?

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?

Hearing this song, you can picture someone traveling to the big city for the first time, seeing all of the bright lights and beautiful people, taking in the sights at the Eiffel Tower and the palace of Versailles, then coming back home to be somewhat let down by the chickens scratching in the yard and the cows waiting to be milked.

I like to include this song in a session with older adults on the theme of living in the country versus living in the city. Most of my clients have been city-dwellers for a while, but a good number of them also lived in the country as kids. That means they have stories to share on both counts, perhaps including the culture shock involved in moving from world to the next. We also talk about taking vacations to places like Paris and Hawaii and maybe even Egypt or Russia then returning to the Midwest, and what that feels like. Some folks can also relate to what their children might experience by living in more exotic locales then coming home to visit their folks in Olathe, Kansas or Independence, Missouri. Overall, the song helps the discussion to stay lighthearted and not too negative about the country or the city.

Simple enough, right? It turns out that this particular song gets more interesting after you learn about its history. You see, this song came out in the last days of the first World War and was wildly popular in the years following the war.

Here’s the scene: after the first World War ended in 1919, a generation of young American men came back home to the U.S. to return to the farms and jobs and families they had before the war. Of course, the same thing happened again after World War II, and it has happened again (in different ways) after every war since then: young men and women have come back home after life-changing experiences overseas. For all of these military members, they come home with a disconnect between the experiences of life in a war zone and life back home. While in a combat zone, decisions had to do with life and death; back home, it’s about what to cook for dinner and what clothes to put on the kids. While overseas, they had to be on alert at all times for possible threats to their physical safety; now they have to be able to handle the noisiness of modern American life without paranoia. While at war, they were surrounded by people who also had direct experiences of being at war; now, people at home are sympathetic but rather clueless, and they wouldn’t want to share the horrific details of what they saw anyway.

So, really, even in its humorous way, this song asks a serious question: how can soldiers return to life as usual after going through the life-changing experiences of being at war? For veterans of the first and second world wars, it certainly wasn’t an accepted practice to continue thinking and talking about the horrors of war after returning home, and post-traumatic stress wasn’t really a topic of discussion. (It was called shell shock back then.) Today’s returning veterans have more resources available for dealing with the transition back to life in the U.S., but it will always be a difficult transition to make. What’s more, the pain that comes from experiencing war can last for a lifetime – I’ve had more than one elderly client tear up remembering his service in World War II.

There are many ways to cope with the trauma of war and the transition back to civilian life, and certainly music is one tool to use. I bet that some of this song’s popularity came from its very quiet acknowledgment of the difficulty of returning home from war in the package of a cheesy, goofy, funny song (complete with cartoonish sound effects in this version.) Perhaps allowing that song to express and contain some of the pain of transition helped, at least a little.

What are your thoughts on this song? Which other songs do you know that work on multiple levels of meaning? What other songs do you know that have been particularly helpful to veterans and their families? Please leave your comments below.

This post is part of an occasional series on special songs to share with your loved ones. For more song spotlights, click here.

Why Old Sheet Music is a Great Holiday Gift for Any Music Lover

Well, here we are at the kickoff to the holiday shopping season. I’m always looking for meaningful, out-of-the-ordinary gift ideas for the people I love. Do you feel the same way? If so, how about giving a gift that costs little money but is huge in value, since it allows you to share your family’s musical legacy, build intergenerational connections, and create opportunities to make music together?

I’m talking about sheet music.

Specifically, the old stuff already lying around your house or Grandma’s house.

My mother-in-law Sandy started this very special tradition in our relationship shortly after I married her son. Her mother, who I never got to meet, was a pianist, and she left behind boxes of old sheet music. This is the music you would buy one song at a time for the songs that were popular in those years. The first song Sandy gave me was “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy,” on the occasion of our first Thanksgiving. Another year, for Christmas, my husband’s parents bought us tickets to a performance of “White Christmas,” and she gave me a copy of “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” a song from that show.  When our daughter Alice was born, she gave me a copy of “Alice Blue Gown.” (Great Grandma’s first name was Alice, too.)

I have treasured each of these gifts. The arrangements have been easy enough for me to play without tons of sweat and tears, and Sandy took care to choose songs that were special for a particular occasion. I’ve gotten to play these songs for the family as well, although no one has been brave enough to sing them with me. (Maybe this year!)

I think it’s a great idea to pass on sheet music copies of beloved songs. But what if no one plays piano? These songs do generally come with chord symbols so that someone could play along on a guitar, autoharp, or other accompaniment instrument. Heck, you could even use the words for a reference and play a drum or just clap your hands with the song.You’re still giving the tangible gift of a song, in a way that is more “real” than a digital recording or CD.

Another idea is to frame the sheet music, with just the cover showing, or open to the music itself. My dad is a minister, and at a previous church, members of the congregation gave him a framed copy of his favorite hymn, from one of the old hymnals. He’s had it hanging in his office ever since. This idea works even for people who don’t play an instrument and wouldn’t want to sing.

For the right person and the right occasion, your gift of sheet music is a celebration of your family’s musical legacy and the bonds that shared songs bring to a family event.

Have you inherited old sheet music or given it as a gift? How do you feel about the older generation’s sheet music collections?

P.S. For more on collecting your family’s musical legacy, check out this post from JoAnn Jordan at Music Sparks.

Song Spotlight: “Swingin’ in a Hammock”

  • Mood: Relaxed
  • Themes: Relaxation, Romance, Vacation, Leisure
  • Tempo: Slow rocking feel to moderate
  • Genre/style: 1930s popular

Okay, I know that summer is pretty much over for school-aged kids, but it’s still pretty warm here in Kansas City, and summer won’t officially end for over a month. That means I feel justified sharing a song that I think perfectly describes the lazy, hazy days of summer: “Swingin’ in a Hammock.”

This song is one that I learned from a client. This man often sings me snippets of old popular tunes, then I track them down so he can hear all the lyrics again and we can sing the song together. He had me stymied for a while with this one, though, as he was remembering only a few words at a time. Finally, Google led me to the National Library of Australia and a digital copy of the sheet music for “Swingin’ in a Hammock,” written in 1930 by Pete Wendling. This song was later recorded by Guy Lombardo, whose charming version you can hear on YouTube. (I also found a fascinating version of this song on a player piano roll. Watch the video just to see how the piano roll works. P. S. The lyrics are in time with the melody, karaoke-style.)

I tend to play this song at a leisurely, rocking pace, while the recordings I found are a bit more jaunty. Either way, this song just sounds like summertime and, evokes summer’s carefree, leisurely, young love. The imagery in this song also portrays the sights and feelings of being in a hammock. My favorite musical moment is the two words in the middle of this phrase: “And we go high, low, playing peek-a-boo with all the stars up in the sky.” If you are swaying along with the music, the rhythm helps you sense exactly what that “high-low” sensation of being in a hammock feels like.

In fact, one of the best ways to enjoy this song, in my opinion, is to hold the hands of the person you are listening with and sway your arms together in time with the music. This reinforces the swaying hammock idea and gives you both some safe and gentle physical contact. (Of course, be aware of any skin tears, tight muscles, or other conditions that might make the other person uncomfortable. You can always tap the other person’s hand gently in time with the music.)

Interested in starting a discussion? Here are some questions to get you started:

1. Have you ever been in a hammock? Where? When? With someone special?

2. I can imagine swinging in a hammock on an island somewhere. Have you ever traveled someplace like that? (Ask about tropical vacations or summertime travels.)

3. What did you do together with your sweetheart when you were young and first in love?

What do you think? Do you enjoy hammocks? What other relaxing, vacation-type songs do you enjoy?

This post is part of an occasional series on special songs to share with your loved ones. For more song spotlights, click here.

Every Piano Has a Story

New piano in a little apartment

Every piano has a story.

I know this is true for other instruments, too, but pianos, by virtue of the fact that they are not moved easily, become monuments of sorts in a family’s home. They are valued enough that many pianos get passed down from older generations to younger family members, sometimes even if the new owners don’t really play the piano much. If you work in home care, this is good to know – you can always ask about a family’s piano story.

Our family’s beloved piano tuner/technician has shared some of the stories he has heard over the several decades he has been caring for these persnickety instruments. Some are sad, like the pianos that must be sold to pay for medical bills, or that can’t find a new home when the owner moves into assisted living. Other stories are happy, though, like when a neglected piano finds a new life with a young musician.

Our wonderful piano technician

Our family’s piano story is a happy one for sure. After my husband went through the ordeal of moving my great-grandmother’s spinet piano from my apartment across town to my parents’ house, we decided it probably was not worth the hassle (and cost) of moving the piano to our second-floor apartment across the state in Kansas City. I did tell him, though, that I would really feel that I had made it when I had a baby grand piano of my own, one that I could play everyday, use for teaching piano lessons and learning music for my music therapy work. I thought of this as a pipe dream, really, but my sweet husband wanted to make this dream come true as soon as possible. He is a champion at finding great deals on Craigslist, and soon enough, he found a family that wanted to sell their baby grand piano, simply because no one in the house was playing it, and they needed the extra space. Through a series of phone calls, we found our piano technician, Gary, who inspected the piano for us before we decided to buy. We had the piano moved to Gary’s shop, where he took the instrument down to its component parts, replacing the strings, hammers, felts, key tops, and probably many other important piano parts before the cabinet was refinished and he put the whole thing back together. We had the piano moved back up to our second-floor (yes, second-floor!) apartment, then later to our new house, where the piano now stays in a room much better suited to its size. Our piano is played everyday, and my husband and I both look forward to the day when our little girl learns how to make music on this beautiful instrument, too. 

I love sharing the story of our piano. My family has similar stories for my parents’ piano, my in-laws’ piano, and my great-grandmother’s piano that now lives with one of my brothers and his wife. These enormous, heavy, instruments/furniture are conversation pieces for sure.

So, what does this mean for you? It means you should ask to hear the stories of pianos.

Where and when was the piano purchased?

Who bought it?

Who played it?

Who else has owned it?

Is anyone playing it now? 

You might be surprised at the stories you get to hear. After that, maybe someone will sit down to tickle the ivories a bit (although they aren’t ivories these days!). Don’t know what to play? This video might give you a start. Then, all of a sudden, you’re having a great moment for music and memory.

Do you have a piano? What is your piano story? Have you heard any other great piano stories? (Or great violin, guitar, or trumpet stories, for that matter?) Please leave your stories below.