The Six Types of Reminiscing

What is reminiscence?

 Reminiscence can be an important part of healthy ageing. It leverages all of the senses to help people remember their past and typically involves the use of everyday objects, sounds, photographs and places.


In the 1960s, Dr. Robert Butler offered a simple hypothesis: reminiscence is part of healthy ageing. A psychiatrist who specialised in geriatric medicine, Butler blazed a new trail in non-pharmacological medicine by suggesting reminiscence as a therapeutic tool at a time when many other medical experts believed ‘living in the past’ was a harmful practice.

Since those first propositions, numerous studies have explored reminiscence and its varied applications, including its use in such interventions as life review therapy and reminiscence therapy. Older people, specifically, tend to gain the most from such practices, especially for treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, depression and other conditions.

But how does reminiscence work?

  • It leverages all of the senses to help people remember their past
  • It typically involves the use of everyday objects, sounds, photographs and places
  • It helps people recall past events and experiences—even when memory is compromised

Read our guide to reminiscence therapy for dementia patients

Benefits of Reminiscence Therapy for Older Adults

Reminiscence is an effective psychotherapy intervention for dementia and Alzheimer’s because it adapts to the memory impairment characteristic of those conditions. Even though people living with dementia have difficulty remembering the recent events in their lives, they do recall the past and their long-term memories.

That focus on preserved memories promotes positive communication and helps participants connect with their past and regain a sense of personal identity, which is also known as autobiographical memory. In that way, reminiscence can be valuable for many types of people—not just those battling disease.

Older people can utilise reminiscence practices to review their life events and enjoy numerous benefits.

Older people can utilise reminiscence practices to review their life events and enjoy benefits such as:

  • Enhanced self-esteem and confidence
  • Improved emotional and mental health
  • Enriched communication skills
  • Greater feelings of validation
  • Increased overall well-being and cognitive function
  • Strengthened episodic memory and self-concept
  • Reduced anxiety and stress

Recalling past events in the present also provides a space for elderly people to communicate, connect with others, and find relief from boredom or depressive symptoms while also sharing their life story and the wisdom they’ve acquired through the years.

There’s just one catch: not all types of reminiscing are constructive, and some can actually be harmful.

The Six Types of Reminiscing

In the decades following Dr. Butler’s initial hypothesis about reminiscence, numerous healthcare experts conducted studies focused on the benefits of reminiscing.

Two psychologists, Lisa Watt and Paul Wong, added a new layer to the research in the 1990s when they developed a taxonomy of reminiscence types to differentiate between which ones promote successful ageing and which ones don’t.

‘successful’ agers demonstrate a significant propensity for the types of reminiscence that reconcile past experiences, promote a sense of self-worth and settle problems.

They mapped out six types of reminiscing, and of those six, ‘successful’ agers demonstrated a significant propensity for the types that reconciled past experiences, promoted a sense of self-worth and settled problems. Just as important, successful agers avoided reminiscence styles that focused on rumination and emotions such as guilt and grief.

Though the study of reminiscence continues to this day, Watt and Wong’s taxonomy still serves as a valuable guidepost for how to utilise reminiscence in old age effectively.

What types of reminiscence are associated with successful aging?

Positive types of reminiscence include Instrumental Reminiscence, Transmissive Reminiscence, and integrative Reminiscence

Instrumental Reminiscence

Life is a series of ups and downs. Instrumental reminiscence recognises the not-so-good stuff (tragedies, failures and other issues) but focuses on the reactions to those events rather than the events themselves. That important distinction encourages strength and resolve; it empowers someone to problem-solve with goals and plans, which can be a useful skill while confronting the challenges of old age.

Transmissive Reminiscence

For many older adults, the opportunity to pass down knowledge or wisdom is a fundamental part of ageing. Transmissive reminiscence provides a forum for that: it’s a constructive exercise that encourages people to share their lessons, values and traditions in a meaningful manner.

Integrative Reminiscence

In the 1950s, German-American psychologist Erik Erikson identified eight stages of development people progress through during their lifespan. According to Erikson, the central conflict of the final stage (age 65+) is integrity vs. despair—a stage where older people contemplate their accomplishments and overall fulfilment.

Integrative reminiscence enables older adults in this stage to acknowledge and accept their life’s events, good and bad, as one complete story rather than a series of occurrences. This type of practice can help a person find meaning, integrity and coherence as they look back on their life, which correlates with feelings of peace and a sense of wisdom.

What types of reminiscence can be harmful?

Of the six types of reminiscence, a few are harmful including Obsessive Reminiscence, Escapist Reminiscence, and Narrative Reminiscence

Obsessive Reminiscence

With obsessive reminiscence, a dark cloud hangs over everything in the past. It’s a type of rumination focused on negative events and emotions such as bitterness and guilt. Whereas other types of reminiscence recognise life’s challenging moments and reframe them into something positive, obsessive reminiscence stops short of that and provides no meaningful reflection or restructuring.

Escapist Reminiscence

On the flip side of obsessive reminiscence, escapist reminiscence romanticises ‘the good old days’ and contrasts them with the difficult present. This sort of recollection can be a valuable coping tactic in a pinch, but it’s mostly rooted in exaggeration and can cast a pall over present-day events.

Narrative Reminiscence

Narrative reminiscence lands squarely in the middle of obsessive and escapist: it’s a completely neutral retelling of events, which means it doesn’t facilitate any further understanding of the self or life as a whole.


Reminiscence can be an important part of healthy ageing

The six types of reminiscing identified by Watt and Wong in the 1990s provide insight today as experts continue to study the effects of reminiscence therapy and systematic review practices.

Over the years, instrumental and integrative reminiscence, in particular, have produced the most beneficial outcomes in ageing studies since they enable older people to engage with their past constructively.

Clearly, not all reminiscing is created equal; the most productive types require some effort and practice, so they’re often most impactful under the direction of an administrator or even in a reminiscence group setting. Some tools, such as the reminiscence functions scale, can provide a certain degree of guidance for at-home practices.

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