Category Archives: Health

Nostalgia: It’s good for you!


When I was a child back in the 1960’s, I distinctly remember the unmistakable smell of burning leaves during the fall months. My father would rake leaves into a heaping pile at the end of our driveway. He then lit a match to the pile of leaves, and to the cherry tobacco in his wooden pipe.  He would attentively stand next to the burning leaves, smoking his pipe until the last leaf was gone.  I was usually sitting on the grass nearby, watching the leaves go up in smoke and talking to my father.

This memory is sheer nostalgia for me.  As I recollect this sweet memory, I am moved emotionally. A smile naturally emerges.

I recently read an article in the New York Times, “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” that shed some light on these emotions. The article discussed how nostalgia has been found to have real and measurable benefits. Several studies have discovered that people who reminisced about past events gained a sense of belongingness and continuity. Participants in the study reported feeling less lonely or anxious, and gained a more positive mood after reminiscing.

As a personal historian, I’ve seen this happen countless times. One in particular stands out. Some time ago I interviewed a 98-year-old woman from Oakland, California. When I first approached “Fritzi”, I explained that I would love to ask her about her memories of her childhood days.

She pushed back. “Oh, I don’t have any memories of those days,” she complained, and stared blankly at me.

I again gently asked her if we could turn on the recorder and see if any memories would surface.  She finally agreed.  Near the end of the 15-minute interview, Fritzi had told me about going to the community swimming pool near her home in Portland, Oregon. She was ten years old at the time. She told me that girls were only allowed to swim on Mondays and Wednesdays.  Boys were allowed to swim on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Fritzi continued to tell me that she wore a dark blue striped heavy knit bathing suit and that her mother tied her long hair back on the days she went to the pool.

I was shocked at the details that came forth during those 15 minutes.

And to cap it all off, Fritzi pulled out the large family photo album, which she said she had not looked at in many years. She said she wanted to show me pictures of her family.  Within a few moments she opened to a page showing a photograph of a very young Fritzi wearing that dark blue striped bathing suit and her hair all pulled back.

After a little while had passed, I asked Fritzi what she thought about being interviewed.  She said, “That was fun!  I didn’t think I would remember anything but I did.”

She paused for a long moment and with a big smile on her face, she said, “And I loved to swim!”

What are you reminiscing about? What emotions has it brought out in you? Share your experiences with us and we may write about it in a future Reel Tributes Blog post. 

Innovative Healing for Alzheimer’s Patients


Not long ago, frequent recollection of past experiences by older adults worried healthcare professionals, who saw this as a sign that the patient was “living in the past.” Recently, however, the professional and popular opinion of reminiscence has undergone a drastic reversal. Dementia researchers now understand that reminiscence therapy is “one of the most popular psychosocial interventions in dementia care, and is highly rated by staff and participants.”

Unfortunately, many of us have encountered dementia’s most common form, Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5.4 million Americans of various ages currently suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s causes memory, thinking, and behavioral problems. However, not all memories fade at the same pace. In the early stage of the disease, Alzheimer’s patients retain their long-term memories and are able to recall events from earlier in their lives, even though they may have difficulty remembering incidents that occurred recently, such as what they did earlier that day. As Alzheimer’s progresses, symptoms become more severe, interfere with daily tasks, and take a giant toll on both Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, various medications, therapies, and supplements are being researched as tools to fight the disease and decrease its heavy burden.

Among these exciting interventions is reminiscence therapy, which involves talking about experiences and events from the past through open-ended questions and the use of tangible prompts. Reminiscence therapy:

  • can be conducted in either a group or individual setting
  • typically involves prompts including home videos, music, photographs, or audio recordings
  • increasingly includes family caregivers in the process

Reminiscence work has been studied as a way to improve mood, cognition, comfort, and general well-being in those with dementia. While research on the effects of reminiscence work has greatly increased, it is still difficult to draw definitive conclusions about its efficacy because many of the studies conducted were small, and the reminiscence protocol used varies from one study to the next.

While the precise benefits of reminiscence therapy are still being confirmed, one fact remains indisputable: it’s critical to capture the memories of your loved ones before it is too late. The Reel Tributes team attended the recent Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Philadelphia. Time and again, we heard the same story: “I wish I had done something sooner. My father recently passed away, and hardly a day goes by without feeling regret for not recording his story before his condition deteriorated.” We had at least 30 conversations of a similar tone.

Don’t let your family fall victim to the same mistake. If your family member is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, time is of the essence. Record his or her story as soon as possible. This will not only be an enjoyable experience for you and your family, but it will also provide important medical benefits for the Alzheimer’s patient.

The Healing Power of a Story

UPDATE (9/12/11): Visit NPR’s powerful story on dignity therapy “For The Dying, A Chance To Rewrite Life”

Memories have the powerful ability to transport us to a different place and time, to stir up visceral and intense feelings. Think, for example, of your first kiss, your favorite vacation, or your biggest regret.

The autobiography has become a rite of passage for celebrities, politicians, and socialites, but who’s to say others wouldn’t benefit from reflecting on their life experiences? Personal historians have long supported and witnessed the positive effects of sharing tales from one’s life. Now, scientific research is shedding new light on the advantages of storytelling and reminiscence.

In the last few years, dignity therapy studies have shown that not only patients, but also family members benefit from this intervention. A recent study published in Lancet Oncology examined the effects of dignity therapy—a brief form of psychotherapy—versus two types of standard care on several hundred terminally ill cancer patients. In the study, patients who received dignity therapy attended three meetings with a therapist in which they explored themes including what mattered most to them, what they wanted to be remembered for, and what wishes and lessons they wanted to leave for loved ones. After the therapy sessions, the patients were given an edited transcript of their sessions, which they could share with anyone they wished.

The study revealed that patients who received dignity therapy were more likely than the patients who received the other care protocols to report that:

  • the intervention was helpful
  • it improved their quality of life
  • it increased their sense of dignity
  • it changed how their family saw or appreciated them
  • it was helpful to their family.

These positive effects extend beyond the elderly grandmother or grandfather, to the younger generation (and perhaps to future generations as well). In a 2007 study of family members who received transcribed dignity therapy sessions from their loved ones, 78% said that the document helped them during their time of grief and 77% reported that the written document would continue to be a source of comfort for their families and themselves.

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Burdened by illness, a sharp decline in activity, and an increased feeling of helplessness, our loved ones forget the value and dignity of their lives. But through the two-step process of examining and recording, even the most “ordinary” individuals will recall how extraordinary their lives have actually been.

Tell us how storytelling has impacted your family. Have you noticed an improvement in health or quality of life? We look forward to hearing your reactions to these studies!