Anyone old enough to have a memory loves to reminisce.
But as people age, reminiscing takes on a greater significance. Experts studying memory and aging say those who take the time to look back at the highs and lows of their lives find greater satisfaction in their old age. They also point out differences between reminiscing and a more formal process called "life review."
Nurses, social workers, ministers, psychologists and psychiatrists all have used reminiscing to help their older clients cope with some of the losses of old age.
Reminiscence groups have the potential to reach more people, according to Irene Burnside, a nurse at the University of Texas at Austin.
Another advantage of reminiscence groups for the elderly in nursing homes or day-care centers is the opportunity to form friendships within the group.
"If they can find another person to confide in, they will have a better outlook on life," said Burnside, who has led nursing-home and day-care center reminiscence groups since 1968.
"The spontaneity and unstructured nature of a group has great value. Their memories are indelible: They remember the sights, the sounds, the smells, what their mothers' dresses were like. It's very vivid."
Reminiscence is a form of random remembering that people in a group engage in, said Barbara Haight, director of a graduate gerontological nursing program at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
But Haight's specialty is conducting life reviews, which she calls a structured review of one's life from the first memory to the present.
Depression and isolation can plague some older people. Whether one's thoughts drift lazily back to a happy past or the mind stubbornly skips over a traumatic event, life review helps put things in perspective.
Haight believes it is crucial to train nursing-home and home-health aides to lead someone through a life review. Psychologists and counselors are not as available to the elderly as these workers, she claims.
Haight has conducted studies of older people in various settings to determine how they benefit from life review. She found that all her subjects, whether they lived independently at home, were housebound, or lived in nursing homes, were significantly more satisfied with their lives after the life review.
"In life review, you put things in their proper place," Haight says. "If you don't do it on your own, you will have a feeling of loss rather than accomplishment because you have not put a value on your life."
Life review is especially important in helping people reconcile the traumatic events of their lives.
For example, one woman Haight counseled found relief from years of anguish after she finally admitted that she blamed her husband for the accidental death of her 8-year-old son. The woman had always comforted her husband about his role in the accident. Not until he died did she look back objectively on the painful episode and let herself feel anger at her husband for his involvement.
Haight's life-review program consists of eight visits and encourages people to describe experiences from childhood, adolescence, adulthood, family, home, sexuality and spirituality. In the last 2 weeks, they summarize their life and put a value on it by describing such things as their greatest disappointments and their happiest moments.