A few years back, I returned from a trip to France with a stack of the typical tourist photos. My father, apparently disinterested, sat quietly as I talked my way through them. But his eyes flickered to one picture, and he leaned forward and pulled the photo toward him as he spoke. His words stunned me.
“I lived there. At the Palace of Versailles.”
I didn’t know whether or not to believe him. Dad was, after all, eighty-two, with a touch of dementia.
“I was an intelligence officer serving with General Eisenhower during World War II. My unit lived in the petite écurie, or small stable.”
With one flash of disclosure, my vision of my father shifted. The man who was a wizard with numbers and sequences, who had a passion for detail and who could see patterns from the inside-out had served as an intelligence officer. One sentence and fact gave me a new understanding of my dad — a World War II hero who I suddenly saw with new eyes.
Opening Doors to Understanding
The events in our past are the key that provides significance for our present and future. Our memories show us who we are and bring shape, focus, and purpose to our lives.
Reminiscing tells us where we fit into the master narrative of life and what our existence means. When we reminisce, we draw meaning from the past that tells us who we used to be and who we are today. Reminiscing is normal — for teenagers looking back with embarrassment on childhood memories or older adults reflecting on their past. Because reminiscing helps us learn, it also helps us adapt to change.
And reminiscing can also be a useful tool in helping us develop genealogies by drawing meaningful stories from our family members.
The Value of Reminiscing
Reminiscing can be an especially useful activity for those who are committed to collecting and preserving family stories. Reminiscing serves a number of important purposes:
- It promotes understanding and connection among individuals and families.
- It helps us preserve history.
- It helps us understand our past and create significance for our present and future.
Reflecting can even help us cope with change and adapt to new environments. And when we do it collaboratively, it helps create community and broaden our understanding.
9 Tips for Reminiscing
So how can you start?
First of all, reminiscing is often successful as a group activity of five or six people. If you choose a group setting, be sure
- the room is quiet.
- everyone has equal opportunity to contribute.
- to provide objects or props to stimulate conversation.
- participants are instructed to be comfortable with pauses and silences.
- someone is assigned to record shared memories.
- confidentiality is honored.
The following tips provide a general starting place for reminiscing with elderly:
- Ask open-ended questions that help the person remember their stories and experiences. Use photos, historical photography books, objects, or mementos to stir memories.
- If possible, ask others to join you who may have shared the memories or similar memories during that era. Shared experiences often help others remember their own memories.
- Ask questions that center around the person’s areas of interest and life experiences. Not all memories will be pleasant. Be sensitive to the emotional context of what is being shared and provide encouragement and reassurance. Respect the individual’s right to privacy and need for confidentiality.
- Break down your questions into particular areas of interest: How did your family member say goodbye to loved ones during the war? What do they remember about seeing their family for the first time when they came home? Where did that take place? Where were they when they first heard the war was over? How did they feel?
- Record what you learn and use that book, timeline, recording, video, etc. to stimulate future sessions.
- Show an interest in your loved one’s shared memories. Body language, eye contact, and verbal affirmations indicate that we connect with the individual sharing their story and their experience.
- Make reflective comments and ask meaningful and appropriate questions.
- Empathize sensitively, especially if your loved one relates painful emotions.
- Respond positively to both verbal and non-verbal attempts to communicate.
Reminiscing can help family members connect cross-generationally as you explore common threads of your shared stories. No matter where you may be in your exploration of ancestry, reminiscing can provide keys to growth within your family and your community.
Shelly Beach, MRE, is an expert on Caring.com, the leading online destination for caregivers seeking information and support as they care for aging parents, spouses, and other loved ones. Shelly answers family caregivers’ questions about spirituality and the Christian faith. She’s also the author of Precious Lord, Take My Hand: Meditations for Caregivers; Ambushed by Grace: Help and Hope on the Caregiving Journey; and It Is Well with My Soul: Meditations for Those Living with Illness, Pain, and the Challenges of Aging. For more information about spending time with older adults, see 11 Tips for a Terrific Visit With an Elderly Loved One.
Contributed by Shelly Beach