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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