Reverting Back to the Past

Why do people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias retain older memories?

Caregivers and family members of adults with Alzheimer’s and other dementias notice their loved ones often talk about the distant past—and sometimes believe they’re still living in those times long ago.

People with dementia start to lose the ability to capture, retain, and retrieve recent memories—sometimes things that happened just a few moments ago. But longer-term memories, which are well encoded in a person’s brain, tend to remain strong longer than recent events. And memories of children, work, childhood, and other past events that are happy ones have likely been revisited often during the person’s life, so they’re more entrenched in the brain, and more easily recalled.

As the disease progresses, long-term memories will be affected as well, and the person will have greater difficulty accurately recalling things that happened a long time ago.

How should you respond?

Families and friends of those with dementia often do not know how to respond when their loved ones keep talking about times long in the past—especially when the older adult believes that those times are taking place right now.

Instead of correcting, criticizing, or arguing, families and caregivers might try to enter their older loved one’s reality, thereby building trust and empathy, and reducing anxiety. Known as “validation therapy,” many families and caregivers use this technique instinctively without knowing its name.

Another technique called “reminiscence therapy” can enliven mood, increase well-being, and promote pleasant behavior in adults with dementia as well as those around them. This technique emphasizes active discussion of past activities, events, and experiences—often with help of photographs, music, and familiar items.

Here are some tips for connecting with those with dementia when they’re “living in the past.”

  • Encourage reminiscing. People with dementia (like the rest of us) want to connect and talk. Sharing memories is a happy activity.
  • Try not to force the person to remember things that happened recently. Doing so often creates frustration and agitation—for both of you.
  • Try using a familiar object to prompt conversation: a favorite book, a souvenir from a vacation, a “vintage” item of clothing.
  • Consider making a photo album that tells the person’s life story. You can make it together and revisit it often. Perhaps keep adding recent photos.