This is part of a regular series on aging well.
Next time grandpa goes on about his winning goal in minor league hockey back in 1956, do your best to nod and smile, even if you've heard the story a million times.
For older adults, talking about the good old days may be one of the best defences against loneliness and depression, researchers say. And it's drug-free.
The benefits of polishing an old chestnut are so well documented that psychologists have come up with various forms of "reminiscence therapy." Delivered in groups or one-on-one, the approach encourages older adults to talk about significant events in their past – winning a science prize, the birth of a grandchild – with a focus on reflection, not just recall.
Australian gerontologist Lynne Parkinson looked at reminiscence therapy as part of a 2016 review of interventions to improve psychological well-being in nursing-home residents.
In the review, published in June in the journal Quality of Life Research, Parkinson and colleagues found that reminiscence therapy was more effective than conventional social activities, indoor gardening, listening to the radio or playing Nintendo Wii games at helping to lift feelings of isolation and depression in older adults.
While each activity showed some benefit, "reminiscence therapy is the only one that came up to tell us that you can actually do something about both social isolation and depression," Parkinson said.
Combined, feelings of loneliness and depression double the mortality risk in older adults, Parkinson and her co-authors wrote.
But their findings about reminiscence therapy and other interventions in the review are not conclusive, she noted, in part because of the lack of high-quality research in this area. In the paper, the best evidence to support reminiscence therapy consisted of a Taiwanese study in which 45 men in a long-term care facility (none with dementia) received eight sessions of group reminiscence therapy over two months.
Exercises in the therapy sessions included sharing memories, expressing feelings about life events, recalling family history, gaining awareness of personal accomplishments and talking about how to apply positive aspects of past relationships to present relationships.
Compared with 47 residents assigned to a wait list for the therapy, men in the reminiscence group showed improvements in depression and loneliness, and reported an increased sense of accomplishment and meaning in life.
While men in the group sessions had more opportunities for social interaction, increased contact with others may not explain their improved well-being, Parkinson said. Contrary to what many people think, adults in long-term care facilities interact with people all the time, including nurses, staff and other residents, she pointed out.
"They're not isolated in terms of contact with people," she explained, "but they are isolated in terms of that richness of human interaction."
Reminiscing with others, whether casually or in group sessions, may spark the kind of meaningful conversations that older people crave.
Too often, Parkinson said, family members stop visiting grandparents in nursing homes "because they want to remember them the way they were." Parkinson urges people to fight that instinct and make an effort to ask older adults about their lives.
"The best thing we can do is to go in and talk to them," she said. "They love it, and they will talk to you."