Using memories as therapy

Philippe Cappeliez

Using a person’s memories as an intervention tool, therapists can help improve the mental health of older adults with depressive tendencies.

by Isabelle Marquis

Professor Philippe Cappeliez of the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology has long been interested in the impact of reminiscence— also called autobiographical memory—on the psychological functioning of older adults. “Our research has been able to establish empirically a link between reminiscence and the physical and mental health of seniors,” he explains. 

Even before he began studying the phenomenon, the researcher suspected there was a link, but it had never been demonstrated by any scientific research. Philippe Cappeliez and his team conducted their research using a sample of about 500 people from several countries, including Canada, the United States, Australia and Great Britain. 

At the beginning of the study, participants answered an online questionnaire in which they evaluated their physical and mental health. Over the next 20 months, participants recorded the type and frequency of their reminiscences. 

The reminiscences were divided according to their role in an individual’s development, as recognized by the scientific community. For example, certain autobiographical memories help build a person’s identity because they give meaning to the person’s life. Other types of reminiscences serve to educate the person’s peers or younger generations. In contrast, some negative memories, such as personal failures, can contribute to feelings of bitterness. 

At the end of the experiment, participants evaluated their state of health a second time. By comparing measurements taken at the beginning of the study to those taken at the end, researchers observed that the more a person cultivated positive reminiscences, the better his or her physical and mental health was. On the other hand, negative reminiscing had a harmful effect on the person’s health. 

The findings of this study confirm the relevance of the reminiscence therapy that Cappeliez’s team is using with older adults with depressive tendencies. This intervention specifically targets seniors living in residential care, who are more likely to experience periods of depression and whose life experiences are different from those of people not living in a supervised environment. 

Therapists use a cognitive approach to try to change the way individuals think. To do this, they use integrative and instrumental reminiscences as therapeutic tools during weekly sessions with a group of four or five people with depressive tendencies. “At each session, we select a theme relating to an important event in the person’s life,” explains Cappeliez. “One person will then share a memory related to that theme. The therapists take that memory and help the person re evaluate certain aspects of it to gain a more positive perspective.” 

Cappeliez continues his explanation using the example of a patient who might mention a series of illnesses that struck the family. “Using instrumental reminiscences, the therapist helps this patient explain how he or she was able to get through the situation. This helps the patient reconnect with the strategies they used to adapt and to handle that difficult period.” 

Integrative reminiscences help older persons better balance the gains and losses experienced in their lives. “For example, a person might say that he always wanted to be a doctor but that circumstances prevented him from fulfilling his dream. He might add that he became a nurse instead and ended up loving his career. By expressing his thoughts in this way, the person is at peace with his past and feels a sense of serenity,” comments the researcher. 

Finally, autobiographical memories allow people not only to reconnect with their abilities, resources and strategies for adapting but also to socialize with others living in the residence. “By sharing their memories in a group setting, these people realize they have common values. It is a way to break the isolation and to live with greater peace,” Cappeliez concludes. 

A growing number of health professionals in Canada, the United States and many European countries are looking at the results obtained by Cappeliez and his team. While some profes¬sionals were already using therapy involving autobiographical memories, this research team’s empirical findings confirm the reliability of this approach. As well, therapists now have proven methods for effectively using reminiscence therapy and are able to help seniors age with greater contentment. 

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