Tips for dementia care to pass on to families and caregivers

Reminiscence therapy helps people with dementia tap into memories without testing their recall. Questions like “how many siblings do you have?’ can lead to embarrassment if the person living with dementia cannot recall. Instead, using objects to spur naturally arising stories, or music or other methods can create a positive and pleasant experience.

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  • Memory prop boxes.  Ask relatives to collect their loved one’s favorite mementos for a “memory prop box.”. The box can include items such as photo albums, treasured keepsakes, or favorite clothing, and items can be both calming and stimulating.
  • Life skills therapy. Often, people spend much of their life in a specific job or role. A personal engagement station to replicate those professions. For example, a simulated office with a typewriter, phone, and note pads may be stimulating for someone who worked as a secretary, or an indoor garden with artificial crops, watering cans, and blunt tools could encourage reminiscence for a farmer. Providing mothers with dolls, bottles, and soft blankets is a particularly effective way to inspire positive memories and reduce agitation, according to The Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology.
  • Reminiscence technology. Engaging with technology can slow cognitive decline and improve mental health in seniors with dementia, according to a 2019 report in the Journal of Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders. Load a senior-friendly tablet loaded with home videos, favorite music, and family pictures.
  • Sensory therapies. Sounds, scents, textures, and flavors can all elicit memory and emotion
    1. Music therapy: Residents can enjoy favorite songs, participate in singalongs, and even dance.
    2. Scent therapy:  Use essential oils, scented wax, and sachets as memory cues. The smell of fresh-cut grass may inspire memories of Saturday morning lawn mowing, while roses could remind someone of their mother’s favorite perfume.
    3. Texture therapy:  touch soft yarn or fur, specially designed texture mats, and unique clothing.
    4. Taste therapy: Comforting recipes and snacks may inspire memories of home-cooked meals or nights out at the diner.
  • Have a movie night. Is the person living with dementia a loved one a fan of musicals? Do they watch weekly westerns on TV? Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection both offer hundreds of older movies for streaming. Your relative may remember Judy Garland’s singing or young Clark Gable sweeping actresses off their feet.

Ask open-ended, general questions that allow for reflection.

Rather than conducting an interview, appeal to their emotions and gently guide them as they begin to talk. Avoid questions with a right or wrong answer and stick with broad topics. For example, ask about family rather than mentioning a specific relative by name. Try asking these reminiscing questions for dementia patients.

  1. What’s something that makes you feel happy or proud?
  2. What are some of the things you’re most grateful for?
  3. Are there any important life lessons you’d like to share?
  4. Can you tell me about a place that’s meaningful to you?
  5. What do you think about this painting/song/movie?
  6. What was your family like growing up?
  7. How do you feel about (something they love)?
  8. Can you tell me about the house where you grew up?
  9. Do you like animals? What about being in nature?
  10. What did you enjoy about the jobs you’ve held?

 Pat Justis, Washington State Department of Health