Talk of things past helps keep senior citizens healthy

PHOTO: Talk of things past helps keep senior citizens healthy

JAPAN - At her home in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, in mid-August, Teru Ishikawa, 96, was having a lively conversation about her late husband with her daughter Shihoko Soeda, 66, while looking over old photos.

Teru, who is usually quiet, lights up when she opens the photo album. Her voice becomes animated and sometimes she breaks into nostalgic songs.

One of the photos shows Teru with her husband and their children at home relaxing on the floor. "This blouse was made out of my husband's white shirt," she says.

Teru smiles. "Those were the good old days, but these days are good, too," she said.

Encouraging seniors to talk about their memories and listening attentively to them is attracting attention as a method for promoting mental health in seniors.

Many people tuck away old photo albums on bookshelves or in closets. However, such memory aids can be useful for seniors who have difficulty remembering.

Shihoko keeps her photo albums within reach of Teru in Teru's room.

"My mother becomes cheerful when she talks about her memories. I try to work them into ordinary conversations with her," Shihoko said.

While picking eggplants grown on her balcony, Shihoko said to Teru: "We had a hard time with father's distaste for eggplants. Even when it was available, we couldn't cook it."

Teru replied cheerfully, "That's really how it was."

Shihoko began to make a more deliberate effort to talk to her mother about their memories after retiring in 2005, when she started voluntarily visiting seniors and putting their memories down in writing.

Shihoko heard from more than 20 seniors, most of whom live in her neighborhood, about their memories of wars and things they did as children. She documented what they said and presented these writings to them as their "personal history." The seniors seemed excited about the writings and their families expressed gratitude to her.

Drawing out memories from the elderly is common practice in the nursing care industry.

Rieko Tsuda, an associate professor of social welfare studies at Kobe Women's University, and an expert on the method, said: "As elderly people lose their social connections after retirement and the loss of family and acquaintances, feelings of resignation increase and they tend to get depressed. Recalling fond memories gives them back a sense of who they are and makes life worth living. As a result, their mental faculties improve and they become motivated."

Tsuda's research study is treasure trove of memories, crammed with artifacts from the Taisho era (1912-1926) and the Showa era (1926-1989), including irons, telephones and gramophones. She held an event in which local seniors gathered to share memories on specific topics. Seniors living in nursing homes who suffer from dementia also visit the study often.

People who suffer from dementia tend to be difficult to speak to and have difficulty responding quickly. But when they engage in activities they did in their past, their behavior tends to change.

For example, ohajiki is a game played by little girls in which players flick flat glass pebbles. When elderly people who suffer from memory problems are asked what the pieces are for, even if they only say, "I have no idea," they soon take interest in the practical activity of flicking them, and once they can do it they begin talking more.

This method helps transform the everyday behavior of elderly people.

There are reports from nursing home staff that seniors became more active and experienced improved mental powers after such activities. According to the report, one wheelchair-bound resident began moving the wheelchair without help, and another found it easier to sit and read the newspaper for a longer period of time.

Tsuda said: "Even if you've heard the stories many times before, please ask the elderly person, 'What else?' There's no special method for drawing memories out of seniors. Also, listeners can feel good about putting a smile on their faces."

Tsuda said the followings are important when talking with seniors about their memories:

  • Speaking slowly to them and not changing topics frequently.
  • Summarizing what they say, using phrases such as "in other words."
  • Maintaining eye contact and listening when they are speaking about their experiences, such as war stories.
  • Expressing thanks to them for sharing their memories with you.
  • Keeping photos or other meaningful objects around to help jog their memory.