A wartime ration card. A root beer float. A Magic 8-Ball. These objects may seem to have nothing in common, but each can be used to revisit the past.
As dementia progresses, people lose their short-term recollection, but often preserve long-term memories from childhood. Reminiscence therapy makes use of old objects — artifacts, music, photos or food, for example — that the person with dementia may remember from childhood, in order to start conversations. Caregivers or healthcare professionals present the object, and the person with dementia is encouraged to speak about whatever memories it sparks.
While reminiscence therapy was originally used in the 1960s as a way to fight depression, researchers and health care professionals have been paying more attention to how it benefits older adults in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Philippe Cappeliez, a University of Ottawa psychology professor who has been studying reminiscence therapy for nearly 25 years, says it has been shown to boost mood and cognitive function.
According to Cappeliez, it also helps to reduce isolation, by starting meaningful conversations between those living with dementia and their caregivers. “It allows the family members and professional caregivers to better know about the person’s identity and their history,” he says.
By removing the pressure from dementia patients to remember specific details like family member’s names, reminiscence therapy allows them to communicate more freely about things they actually remember.
Outside of healthcare institutions, programs like the House of Memories exhibit in the U.K., and projects like memory boxes are making it easier for caregivers to use reminiscence to connect with their loved ones at home.
Reminiscence works best when the objects are personalized. Someone who had a career as a seamstress may find comfort in a an old oil cloth tape measure, for example.
The therapy can also be enjoyable for caregivers themselves. Younger carers especially can use the activity as a chance to learn about days gone by.
“You and I might not know what these objects are called or what they were used for,” Cappeliez says. “But older people may know and be very excited and happy to share memories about these objects and their own lives.”
Interested in reminiscing with your loved one? Here are some examples of old objects with surprising back stories to get you started.
The Pez Dispenser
While we know them for their iconic dispensers, Pez candy were originally intended as breath mint when they were invented in Austria by Eduard Haas II in 1927. They didn’t appear in dispensers until 1948. Original dispensers were shaped like cigarette lighters, and were meant to encourage people to quit smoking. In the 1950s, Pez were introduced to the U.S. market, but the anti-smoking shtick didn’t sit well with consumers. The company decided to rebrand and market themselves towards children, and the cartoonish dispensers were designed.
The Baseball Mitt
Until the late-1800s, baseball was played without a glove. Pitches were thrown underhand, but as throws got faster, players suffered bruises and broken bones. In 1875, New Haven first baseman Charles C. Waite wore a beige leather work glove, hoping no one would see the inconspicuous color. They noticed. Waite was mocked by fans and players, who felt a glove wasn’t manly. Pitcher A.G. Spalding took note, and when he and his brothers launched a sporting equipment company the next year, their collection included a baseball glove.
The Lava Lamp
The Lava Lamp was invented in the ‘60s by Edward Craven Walker, a British accountant also known for making underwater nudist films. Walker was inspired by a homemade egg timer, made with a cocktail shaker and filled with brightly colored, bubbling liquids. The Lava Lamp wasn’t meant as a “groovy” decorative fixture. A 1968 ad showcased its “executive” model, mounted on a walnut base next to a ballpoint pen. But its low light and multi-hued wax was suited to the ‘60s aesthetic, and its rocket-ship shape lent itself to the space age craze.
The Brannock Device
Most people have seen this foot measuring device, but likely have no idea what it is called. The tool takes its name from its inventor, Charles Brannock, who in the 1920s became determined to invent something that could measure both the length and width of a person’s foot. Brannock grew up in the shoe business, and was so passionate about his invention, that he would wake up in the middle of the night to frantically scribble sketches, much to the annoyance of his university roommate. His work payed off after he patented the tool in 1925.
Megan Jones is a Toronto-based writer and editor.
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