How to help someone with dementia to remember

Our memories tell us the story of who we are. One of the hardest things about dementia is that it can take away these stories. But some of the most joyful moments of dealing with it are the moments your loved one’s eyes light up with a memory they’ve managed to bring back.


Without guidance, it’s almost impossible to know the “best” way to talk about the past with someone suffering from dementia. And there’s often no “best” way. What upsets them one day might make them feel happy the next. There will always be good days and bad days.


To provide a little guidance in having these talks, we wanted to talk about reminiscing: the art of unlocking or evoking pleasant memories.


What are the benefits of reminiscing?


  • Reminiscing is an alternative to remembering, and to the question that can be filled with dread for dementia sufferers: “do you remember...?” According to the Alzheimers Society, asking people with degenerative conditions direct questions about their memory can be distressing for them. Rather than risking them feeling guilty or embarrassed if they don’t remember, you can take the pressure off with a more ‘two-way street’ conversation.


  • According to a 2015 study, reminiscing can boost confidence and self-acceptance. Sometimes, getting to sit back and listen to you sharing stories (rather than trying to come up with memories themselves) can trigger a memory of their own. This is huge in terms of keeping their confidence up.


  • Studies have shown that reminiscing can help alleviate depression. Stories from the past can be hugely comforting, as can the benefits of good old human interaction. Even if the person is struggling to remember exactly who or what you’re talking about, they might still find a comforting sense of familiarity in what you’re saying.

How do I reminisce with someone with dementia?


When you’re dealing with dementia, even simple conversations can become stressful and difficult for both you and your loved one. This is especially true if they’re in the early stages, and you are only just starting to learn about the disorder, and the unique ways it affects your loved one.


Although memories can be wonderful, they can also be painful. Learning to navigate subjects - both simple and difficult - can help to keep your loved one feeling calm and safe. People with dementia tend to have stronger long-term memories than short term ones.


Pam, whose elderly mother Dilys has suffered from Dementia for the past 10 years, says: “My mum who is in a care home living under EMI Care has always loved music. Even though she doesn’t hold a conversation anymore, she can sing a song all the way through which amazes us. The staff always leave a radio on in her room to comfort her.

Mum used to love knitting but she no longer recognises the wool. Instead, we had a hand muff knitted for her which featured lots of textures, buttons, toggles and ribbons. She often sits and plays with the different textures which is lovely to see.

For her birthday this year, we made her a Memory Book which has been a beautiful gift. It brought tears to my dad’s eyes to see her touch the pictures of her sons and a photo of my wedding day when we turned the pages. All of these props and items help to bring her some comfort and as a family, it touches us to see her in those moments.”


If you are looking for items to take to your loved one to help reminisce, see if you can use some of these ways to help bring those memories back to life.

1. Appeal to all the senses. Nothing brings back memories like scent, music, even hearing a chapter of a book or a poem read aloud.


2. Acting and role play. It might feel a bit silly at first, but if the person seems relaxed and willing, see if you can get them to act out a certain role. This might be their previous occupation, or a talent they had like singing, a sport, or military service. This can help them tap into old memories and ways of speaking they might’ve forgotten they had.


3. Literature can be a huge help. Showing your loved one their own journals is the obvious one to help trigger memories, but not everyone keeps diaries throughout their lives. Look at bringing them things like photos, newspaper cuttings, their favourite novels or magazines, and even their old calendars, sketches, or recipes to give them a sense of their past daily life. For a combination of these materials (or if you don’t have many of these things to hand), consider making a personalised memory book, where you can collect them all together in a way that’s special to them.


4. Try tactile activities. Touching can be both helpful and comforting for people with dementia. Try bringing them things like toys they might have kept in the house, knitted items, or clothes and accessories they often wore like a favourite scarf, a necklace, or a Sunday hat. 


Every single dementia sufferer is different. Each person will react to things differently. Creating something as unique as they are might just be the thing that gets them reminiscing, and brings a spark of joy to their day (and yours).


Go to Memory Books today to find out how you can easily put together a beautifully-bound book bursting with personal pictures and memories.