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: “America the Beautiful”

"O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain"

“O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain”

“America the Beautiful” was first published in 1910 and has remained for more than a century one of our nation’s most beloved patriotic songs. It also has what I think is a beautifully American story.

This song has two stories of inspiration and creation: one for the lyrics and one for the music.

Katherine_Lee_Bates

Katharine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics for this song, inspired by the sights on a cross-country trip.

The lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893. The English professor from Wellesley College took a train trip from Boston to Colorado Springs to teach a summer school session at Colorado College. On her way there, several sights served as inspiration: the White City of the Chicago World’s Fair, the ripe wheat fields of Kansas, and the view of the Great Plains from the top of Pike’s Peak. It was on that mountaintop that Bates began composing her poem, which she finished later in her hotel. Two years after that, the poem was published in The Congregationalist to honor the Fourth of July.

Although several existing pieces of music were adapted to fit the poem, the hymn tune “Materna” by Samuel A. Ward has been the most popular tune for setting this poem, and continues to be the most familiar today. Ward was also inspired to pen his tune, in his case on the ferry from Coney Island back to New York City after a lovely summer day in 1882. As the story goes, Ward was so eager to capture the melody in his head that he wrote it down on a fellow passenger’s shirtsleeve. (Presumably the other guy gave his permission!) Originally intending the melody for the old hymn “O Mother, Dear Jerusalem,” Ward retitled his tune “Materna.”

Samuel A. Ward wrote the music that eventually became the preferred setting for this song.

Samuel A. Ward wrote the music that eventually became the preferred setting for this song.

Unfortunately, Ward died in 1903, years before his melody and Bates’s poem were matched together to become one of the most famous patriotic songs in American history. Bates herself never met Wardl; but she did get to see the popularity of her song firmly established by the time of her death in 1929.

There are many reasons to love this song, especially for its American-ness.

  • The composers represent at least a small part of our nation’s diversity. Yes, they were both privileged white folk from the East Coast, but it is no small thing that one of the nation’s most beloved patriotic songs was written by an educated woman who never married (a “free-flying spinster” according to one friend) and a church musician who was the last in an unbroken line of men named Samuel Ward, the first of whom was a representative to the Continental Congress. To me, these two artists were both grounded in the nation’s history and reaching for a new future. What is more American than that?
  • These artists were inspired by a variety of sights across America, from Pike’s Peak to Coney Island. I love that this song represents the variety of landscapes across our country (including my special favorite – the “amber waves of grain” of Kansas).
  • This song has even been a political football. At various times in the last century, some people have tried to give “America the Beautiful” some sort of official status as a national anthem, on par with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Some prefer this song’s peaceful lyrics over the battle imagery of the national anthem. Of course, for some, the reason for preferring “America the Beautiful” is musical rather than political:
  • “America the Beautiful” is more singable than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” according to some critics. I have to say I agree – I sing “America the Beautiful” with music therapy groups much more often than our official national anthem. The kind of song that everyone can sing together – no divas or sports stars required – that’s the kind of song that I think is truly American.

What do you think? Is “America the Beautiful” one of your favorite patriotic songs, or do you have another? For my friends not in America, what are the favorite songs to represent your country? Please leave your thoughts below.