The psychological impact of nostalgia for people with dementia

This blog is written by Walt Reid, a supporter of Total communication Services CIC. Walt’s interest in all forms of communication and history are combined in his role as a guide. Walt’s blog considers the powerful impact reminiscence can have on all of us and in particular people with dementia and how in terms of a therapeutic approach we are looking at engagement and positive experience.


Dementia is a persistent disorder of mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by memory loss, confusion, personality changes and impaired reasoning. The commonest form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Working as I do in the cottage in Styal village I often have occasion to welcome visitors who experience the challenges

of dementia. There was one day, as I was beginning a tour, a family who were visiting with an elderly relative pointed out that she suffers with dementia. “but was no trouble”. As we moved from room to room I was struck by the rapt expression on her face. She never spoke a word during the whole time of the tour but as she left she shook my hand warmly and offered me a contented smile. I remember thinking how happy she seemed and that for those few moments wherever she had been transported to, was a happy place or time which she couldn’t express in words as she was non- verbal.


For a few moments I envied her and wondered how memories can be therapeutic for those experiencing dementia.

It took me back to the first time I myself visited the cottage in preparation for leading tours as an interpretation assistant. Standing at the top of the stairs and looking down I was suddenly transported back to my own childhood. I was a boy again, aged three years and standing at the top of a chasm, holding tight to the handrail and emerging into the back kitchen where my mother was hard at work preparing breakfast. The room was warm and welcoming, lit only from the flames dancing merrily in the hearth. For a fleeting moment I was back in the terrace house where I was born in the old mill town of Ashton.

All sorts of stimuli can evoke memories. One of the most powerful is our sense of smell. Nervous pathways of memory are closely linked to our sense of smell. Familiar smells can transport us back to our formative years. Sound and our sense of touch and taste are also powerful evokers of memory.

For this reason nostalgia relayed through different senses has

a part to play in therapy for people with dementia. Media for nostalgia can be through music, visual artefacts such as photographs and object . People who have dementia are usually able to recall long term memories but couldn’t remember what they had for breakfast or the names of their children. The same person might find no difficulty in singing a favourite song or naming long lost relatives in a photograph album.


Oral histories are a major way people can experience the “nostalgia effect.” You don't have to experience dementia to feel the soothing effect of listening to voices from a bye gone age.

In this regard people with dementia or simple memory loss can serve a useful function by relaying their reminiscences to others.


In a world where they are so reliant on others for most day to day functions. When they are asked about their past experience they can come into their own. Drawing upon a powerful faculty they may still possess. ie. Long term memory.

The heritage industry offers nostalgia experiences at many of its properties but also through it’s oral histories. The talking newspaper a popular broadcast started by the RNIB has employed this strategy. Intended for those with sight loss, it is now recognised as an aide to those with dementia - a great benefit for people who may be confined to their own home.


According to researchers in Bristol and Bangor pathways in the brain can be exercised through nostalgia. A reflection of

a bye gone age can be therapeutic to those who struggle with their memory loss, as it can be calming and help them deal with frustrations leading to aggression. Furthermore nostalgia can maintain brain function, help with thinking about the future as well as the past as these are shared pathways. Studies report that reminiscence and life review, (recalling former times or so called life story recall), can have beneficial effects for those with various kinds of dementia. These include improvement of mood, communication, cognitive function and quality of life.


I became a dementia friend in 2019. It’s something I would recommend and you can sign up by learning some simple facts about the illness. Next time I escort a party around the cottage in Styal, I shall do so with renewed vigour secure in the knowledge that I might be helping someone with dementia.


Sources

Ismail (2018) University of West England

Woods (2018) University of Bangor

Age UK

Dementia UK

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