Reminiscence therapy

Key points

  • Reminiscence therapy (which may include life story work) invites a person living with dementia to review past events in their history, which can be a positive and rewarding activity for the person.
  • These approaches can help staff understand people living with dementia as individuals with unique needs and preferences. 
  • Evidence from 11 systematic reviews showed that reminiscence therapy may improve quality of life and reduce symptoms of apathy.
  • The evidence on the benefits of reminiscence therapy for depression, cognitive function, and agitation is inconclusive.
  • Studies found no benefit of reminiscence therapy for the physical function of the person living with dementia. There was also no benefit found for stress, wellbeing, mood, and quality of life for the carer.

Reminiscence therapy (which may include ‘life story work’) involves a discussion of past experiences and events between a person living with dementia and staff or family members. This approach often uses photos, old newspaper articles, and items from the person’s past to evoke memories and stimulate storytelling. [1] These may be presented in print format or using digital media. A final product of this work might be a life-story book of personal memory triggers. [1] It is also a good way for family and care staff to get to know the person’s interests and preferences to help with decision-making when the person is no longer able to communicate. [2]

This evidence theme on reminiscence therapy is a summary of one of the key topics identified by a scoping review of dementia research. If you require more information on this topic, try using our one-click PubMed searches provided below.

We found 11 systematic reviews that assessed the impact of reminiscence therapy, including one focused on the outcomes of life story work. 

Reviews found that reminiscence therapy and creating a life story book had a positive impact on the quality of life of the person living with dementia. [2, 3, 10, 11] In addition, reminiscence therapy has been found to reduce apathy. [4] Work on life story books was also shown to improve:

  • The person’s autobiographical memory [2]
  • Family member satisfaction with care and positive perceptions of their loved one [2]
  • Staff members’ knowledge of the person in their care and the quality of the relationship between them. [2]

The evidence for the effectiveness of reminiscence therapy is inconclusive for:

  • Depression [3, 5-8, 10, 11]
  • Cognitive function [3, 5-7, 9-11]
  • Agitation [7, 8]
  • Other neuropsychiatric symptoms [11]
  • Dependency. [11]

This is because some studies reported benefits, while other studies did not.

There was no clear evidence of benefit for carers' stress, wellbeing, mood, or quality of life. [7] In other words, studies have assessed the relationship between reminiscence therapy and these outcomes, but they did not report any benefits. Overall, reminiscence appears most likely to be effective when people are living in residential aged care. [6]

    The reviews highlighted concerns about the methods used in some of the studies. This reduces the degree of certainty we might have about the benefits of reminiscence therapy. For example:

    • Studies did not compare the effectiveness of reminiscence therapy activity across varying stages of dementia. [7]
    • It was unclear how long benefits last. [3]
    • There were not enough people in some studies. [3, 5]
    • Be aware that some people may find discussing their past distressing.
    • On first meeting a person with dementia, find out if they are willing to share information about their previous work, interests, hobbies, accomplishments, and memories of family and special events such as holidays. This can form a basis for conversation with the person or help you understand their personal likes and dislikes.
    • Ask family members to provide photographs of events and people in the person’s life which can be used to communicate with the person.
    • Keep notes updated if you have noticed that an individual enjoys talking about their past, pay attention to any of their favourite topics (or topics to avoid).
    • Even if the person living with dementia is not able to participate verbally in reminiscence therapy and life story work, they may still experience feelings of pleasure from being involved in reflections on their past.
    • View the resources provided below.
    • Consider conducting workplace training on reminiscence therapy and life story work.
    • Encourage and support staff to keep notes on what certain individuals may like to talk about.
    • Make staff aware of some of the practical resources available on this topic. (See resources below.)
    1. Abraha I, Rimland JM, Lozano-Montoya I, Dell'Aquila G, Velez-Diaz-Pallares M, Trotta FM, et al. Simulated presence therapy for dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020;4:CD011882.
    2. Abrahamsen Grøndahl V, Persenius M, Bååth C, Helgesen AK. The use of life stories and its influence on persons with dementia, their relatives and staff - a systematic mixed studies review. BMC Nursing. 2017;16:1-11.
    3. Thomas JM, Sezgin D. Effectiveness of reminiscence therapy in reducing agitation and depression and improving quality of life and cognition in long-term care residents with dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Geriatr Nurs. 2021;42(6):1497-506.
    4. Goris ED, Ansel KN, Schutte DL. Quantitative systematic review of the effects of non-pharmacological interventions on reducing apathy in persons with dementia. J Adv Nurs. 2016;72(11):2612-28.
    5. Cabrera E, Sutcliffe C, Verbeek H, Saks K, Soto-Martin M, Meyer G, et al. Non-pharmacological interventions as a best practice strategy in people with dementia living in nursing homes. A systematic review. Eur Geriatr Med. 2015;6(2):134-50.
    6. Huang H-C, Chen Y-T, Chen P-Y, Huey-Lan Hu S, Liu F, Kuo Y-L, et al. Reminiscence therapy improves cognitive functions and reduces depressive symptoms in elderly people with dementia: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2015;16(12):1087-94.
    7. Woods B, O'Philbin L, Farrell EM, Spector AE, Orrell M. Reminiscence therapy for dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;3:CD001120.
    8. Wang G, Albayrak A, van der Cammen TJM. A systematic review of non-pharmacological interventions for BPSD in nursing home residents with dementia: From a perspective of ergonomics. Int Psychogeriatr. 2019;31(8):1137-49.
    9. Sampath P, Forbes DA, Barton S, Blake C. A systematic review of the effectiveness of interventions for persons living with dementia based in the home or community. Perspectives. 2015;38(2):6-19.
    10. Cammisuli DM, Cipriani G, Giusti EM, Castelnuovo G. Effects of reminiscence therapy on cognition, depression and quality of life in elderly people with Alzheimer's disease: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Clin Med. 2022 Sep 28;11(19):5752.
    11. Saragih ID, Tonapa SI, Yao CT, Saragih IS, Lee BO. Effects of reminiscence therapy in people with dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2022;29(6):883-903.
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    Connect to PubMed evidence

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    Selected resources

    Information Sheet
    Communication and engagement

    Dementia can have an impact on a person’s ability to communicate verbally. This sheet from Alzheimer's WA provides information regarding communicating and engaging with a person with dementia, stigma, what not to do, and life story books.

    Updated 04 Aug 2022
    Creating a life story: A guide for family, friends and support staff

    A Life Story book can be used as a tool to help facilitate person-centred care. It enables caregivers to engage and communicate with a person living with dementia, understand their unique needs, and provide meaningful interaction based on the person’s likes and dislikes and personal history. This resource is from Alzheimer's WA.

    Updated 04 Aug 2022
    Purposeful activities (chapter 2)

    Chapter 2 of this video series from Dementia Australia focuses on knowing the person's life story in order to support meaningful engagement. (5 min)

    Updated 07 Jun 2023