Autobiographical memories and communications: What is reminiscence?

22 September 2020

Autobiographical memories and communications: What is reminiscence?

22 September 2020

Sometimes a familiar song or smell is enough to soothe a loved one with neurocognitive disorder. Why and how to use it in everyday life? This is what reminiscence therapy explores.

The goal of reminiscence therapy is to recall objects of the participant’s past and put them in context (photographs, movies, toys, clothes dating from their time, for example.) It is based on the concept of identity, "by involving people with cognitive disorders to actively recognize life experiences", as mentioned in the French magazine variations of the Musée de la civilisation.

The importance of the concept of identity

This type of therapy is based on the concept of identity – since this method allows remembering personal past events (career change, marriage, birth, etc.) or specific to collective memory (the Second War, the referendum, the departure of the Expos, etc.) which have defined them at a certain time of their lives. Therefore, the identity connects the present moment (the objects presented, or the stories shared and the situation of cognitive loss) with the memories in an attempt to work on the memory. “We also help the person reconnect with some parts of their identity, since personal and autobiographical memories are the constituents of our identity. In that sense, when losing our own memories, we are losing a big part of our identity”,  as outlined by Dr Philippe Cappeliez, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology.

The benefits of reminiscence

The benefits of reminiscence among the elderly are multiple. Chief among these are a greater sense of belonging, an increased personal esteem and a heightened sense of individual identity through their unique life journey. It is also noted that this type of cognitive approach helps seniors cope with some depressive episodes. In addition, group sessions supervised by a therapist consisting in the sharing of memories between residents allow them to break away from isolation and to socialize, which brings them great relief.

To this day, no research proves that this type of therapy helps stop cognitive degeneration, nor does it improve cognitive functions. By contrast, we have noticed that this therapy brings a lot of relief in the lives of people who have used it.

Practicing Reminiscence Therapy

We often talk about group meetings to notably allow socialization, as mentioned above. You can also practice sessions on a one-on-one basis or with family members.

The goal is to evoke memories of the past to find moments of personal successes. For example, a man that is now severely handicapped could remember the time where he built four houses by himself. What does this tell us about him? That he is a very manual and resourceful person! While he can no longer build a house today, this person still possesses these abilities and qualities that once defined him.

However, we recommend the assistance of a professional since certain objects or stories could make stressful or sensitive memories resurface for the elderly in treatment. A therapist will attempt to turn the situation into something more positive: “we might touch a sensitive point that triggers a lot of bitterness, regrets and remorse. The risk is that the person sinks into despair because of this”, explains Dr. Cappeliez during a thorough interview we had with him.

You want to know more about reminiscence therapy?

There are several resources at your disposal:

  • You can obtain information from a professional or a mental health professional;
  • Conferences and workshops given by Dr Nicole Caza, specializing in the field of aging neuropsychology;
  • Dr Cappeliez’s book, À la lumière de mon passé : Mes souvenirs autobiographiques pour me connaître et me comprendre;
  • Reminiscence digital workshops offered by the Musée de la civilisation. Contact Faye Villeneuve by e-mail for more information.

Need to talk?

Don't forget, Caregiver support is here to listen to you and offer support and guidance. Don't hesitate to contact us by phone at 1 855 852-7784, or by e-mail.


Neuromedia, Thérapie de réminiscence
Université d’Ottawa, Perspectives sur la recherche, Utiliser les souvenirs à des fins thérapeutiques
The Benevolent Society, Reminiscing Handbook, 2005, 14 p.  
Revue canadienne de la maladie d’Alzheimer et autres démences, Les traitements non pharmacologiques: une approche différente de la maladie d’Alzheimer
Revue d'Evidence-Based Medicine, Approches thérapeutiques non médicamenteuses
Association québécoise des infirmières et infirmiers en gérontologie, la Gérontoise, Soins aux personnes âgées : approches complémentaires
Journal of Dementia Care, Exploring reminiscence through dance and movement.


Need to talk?

Contact our Caregiver Support Helpline for counselling, information et referrals.

Every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Free of charge.

call  Caregiver info :  1 855 852-7784