It has the potential to help us revisit the positive emotions of our past while improving our connections with ourselves and those around us in the present.
As part of psychosocial interventions, memories can create positive life narratives that support mental wellbeing and growth.
For clients facing their final years, or attempting to move through trauma, reminiscence therapy and life review therapy can help them recall and process past events. We look at how this therapy creates value for clients dealing with illness.
What Is the Difference Between Reminiscence Therapy and Life Review Therapy?
Before we compare the two therapies, let’s first recap what each therapy does.
What is reminiscence therapy?
Reminiscence therapy is a psychosocial intervention based on remembering — sharing stories of what people have done, things they have seen, and places they have visited (Schweitzer & Bruce, 2008).
While there is currently no cure for dementia, psychosocial interventions based on remembering have been shown to support people with dementia and their families through tough times.
“By creating a supportive social environment we can enable people to continue to communicate, maintain relationships and be socially included, despite their dementia.”
Schweitzer & Bruce, 2008, p. 19
What is life review therapy?
When people are diagnosed with a severe illness, such as cancer, all attention may go to the disease and being ill. As a result, the meaning of past, present, and future can appear to change, and the individual may experience psychological distress, such as anxiety and depression (Kleijn et al., 2019).
Recollecting specific positive and autobiographical memories can offer strength through difficult times.
Life review therapy “aims to integrate positive and negative life events in a coherent life story and into a meaningful whole” (Kleijn et al., 2019, p. 3312).
In turn, the client experiences greater egocentricity through accepting their lives as “something that had to be, feeling connected to others, and experiencing a sense of wholeness, meaning, and coherence when facing death” (Kleijn et al., 2019, p. 3312).
How do reminiscence therapy and life review therapy differ?
While both therapies are psychosocial interventions that involve recalling and processing past events and reflecting on earlier experiences, reminiscence therapy’s goal is to engage people in conversations that promote social interaction, improve their mood, and increase their sense of self-worth.
Life review therapy is used when an individual’s attention and focus are dominated by their illness or situation. Life review therapy is used as a way of integrating positive and negative aspects of clients’ lives into an integrated whole (Schweitzer & Bruce, 2008; Kleijn et al., 2019).
Reminiscence Therapy for Specific Conditions
Reminiscence therapy (whether face to face or virtual) can ease depression and anxiety and improve cognitive functioning across various disorders, conditions, and patient groups (Zhang et al., 2021).
Reminiscence therapy for PTSD
Reminiscence therapy offers a practical approach for treating posttraumatic stress symptoms in older war veterans by revisiting autobiographical memory (Daniels et al., 2015).
“Sharing of memories and facilitating client self-disclosure have been used in the treatment of older veterans,” leading to reduced symptoms of depression, improved self-assessed wisdom, and increased ability to make sense of the past (Daniels et al., 2015, p. 423).
The benefits of reminiscence therapy for hospice patients
Reminiscence therapy offers many benefits to various clinical populations, including those needing support in hospice environments or palliative care (Cuevas et al., 2020; Kleijn et al., 2018).
A 2018 study found that remembering activities and experiencing nostalgia encouraged acceptance in patients facing death, connecting them to others, creating a sense of wholeness, and finding deeper meaning in their lives (Kleijn et al., 2018).
Such treatments align with positive psychology, focusing on the “positive features that make life worth living such as hope, optimism, happiness, and wellbeing” even when nearing the end of life (Kleijn et al., 2018, p. 3318).
How reminiscence therapy can help Parkinson’s patients
Reminiscence activities (revisiting personal history) and interventions have been combined with mindfulness therapy to positively affect the mental wellbeing of patients affected by Parkinson’s disease (Reitano et al., 2023).
A 2023 pilot study found that patients receiving the combined treatment experienced improvements to their memory and cognition following the use of “household objects, past photographs, and music” to trigger autobiographical memories (Reitano et al., 2023, p. 3).
While further research is needed, the study’s authors suggest that reminiscence therapy offers a safe intervention for reducing depression, chronic pain, and anxiety while boosting cognitive potential (Reitano et al., 2023).
Reminiscence therapy for Alzheimer’s patients
It is widely accepted in the academic literature that reminiscence therapy is highly effective in treating adults with Alzheimer’s disease for depression, quality of life, cognitive issues, and activities involved in daily living (Cuevas et al., 2020).
Reminiscence therapy is most effective in this group when conducted regularly in small groups for an average of 45 minutes for an eight- to 12-week duration. Patients watch videos, listen to music, and look at photographs that help them remember their past experiences (Cuevas et al., 2020).
Nurses and other health care professionals can be taught the importance of reminiscence therapy and the “need to recognize the importance of using individual life stories, experiences, and memories in review,” especially in addressing the meaning of these experiences to the patients (Cuevas et al., 2020, p. 370).
How reminiscence therapy can help cancer patients
Individuals undergoing cancer treatment experience significant psychological changes. Studies show that “30%–45% of cancer survivors experienced depression and anxiety” (Sun et al., 2023, p. 1).
Ongoing research recognizes the value of reminiscence therapy for cancer patients. A recent review of clinical randomized controlled studies including 1,853 cancer patients found that those taking part in reminiscence therapy interventions reported significantly lowered symptoms of anxiety and depression (Sun et al., 2023).
Additional research also finds that the positive effects of such interventions are also seen in patients undergoing cancer treatment and those in postoperative recovery (Zhang et al., 2021).
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Life Review Therapy for Specific Conditions
Life review therapy focuses on balancing positive and negative reminiscence, understanding life themes, redefining negative experiences, and elaborating memories. It is a powerful tool for developing a sense of worth, wellbeing, coherence, and reconciliation with the past (Preschl et al., 2012).
As such, life review therapy, while under-researched, appears to be a valuable treatment across multiple client groups.
How life review therapy can help with depression and anxiety
Life review therapy (and storytelling) is an effective treatment for clients experiencing symptoms associated with depression and anxiety (Preschl et al., 2012).
A six-week life review therapy administered via computer and face-to-face meetings showed significant improvements in participants’ depression, wellbeing, life satisfaction, and self-esteem (Preschl et al., 2012).
While other psychological interventions are available for treating anxiety symptoms, poor motivation often results in low uptake. Life reviews — looking back and evaluating our lives — may seem more enjoyable, particularly for those in distress.
Research shows that many people have a pleasant “reminiscence bump” in their youth and early adulthood — a period of increased and powerful memories (Korte et al., 2009; Koppel & Rubin, 2016).
In a 2009 study, life review interventions prevented symptoms from developing into full-blown depression and anxiety. They were identified as low-cost, easily implemented interventions across various cultures and socio-economic backgrounds (Korte et al., 2009).
Helping those with chronic illness
Quality of life often reduces in the elderly and the chronically ill. Life review therapy can help resolve past conflicts, rebuild life stories, and support clients in accepting their present circumstances (Sharif et al., 2018).
A 2018 study concluded that those in late-life care centers benefit from their nursing staff and families being trained in and employing life therapy interventions (Sharif et al., 2018).
An analysis of existing research into life review interventions in patients in palliative care reported a positive impact on the participants’ existential and spiritual domains and reduced feelings of concern and worry (Keall et al., 2015).
A 2017 study reported that clients in palliative care enjoyed the life therapy interventions in the form of collating photographs and writing letters or cards for family members. No change showed in their scores for ego-integrity (finding meaning in past events and an absence of death anxiety) or generativity, the care and concern for future generations (Vuksanovic et al., 2017).
How to use the therapy for grief and loss
Bereavement life review has been shown to elevate spiritual wellbeing and reduce symptoms of depression in caregivers leading up to and following their loved one’s death (Ando et al., 2015).
Caregivers reviewed memories of the deceased, recorded their narratives in a personal history book, and later discussed them in sessions with a therapist. The practice elevated their understanding surrounding what had happened and their experiences of self-change and growth (Ando et al., 2015).
Other research suggests that life review interventions can benefit factors such as good memories of families and make the last few days before death more pleasant, improving the spiritual wellbeing of bereaved families (Ando et al., 2011).
How life review therapy can help dementia patients
Reminiscence as part of life review therapy appears promising for dementia patients. One-to-one therapeutic sessions covering the client’s entire life can significantly improve their mood and reduce their behavioral problems (Haight et al., 2003).
Research findings suggest that life review interventions — with their “emphasis on active listening — can enable the person to ‘move on’ from being preoccupied with particular memories or concerns” (Haight et al., 2003, p. 165). The therapy appears to reenergize clients and help them become unstuck and continue to live their lives despite the onset of their illness.
4 Example Reminiscence Therapy Activities
The following four activities help clients remember, share, and reflect on memories, with the aim of increased communication and promoting positive emotions (Schweitzer & Bruce, 2008).
1. Using tools
All jobs have tools specific to the needs of the task and the profession. If the therapist or care worker can find out what an older person did during their working years, they can source items from their trade.
For example, someone who worked on the docks all their life will instantly recognize a docker’s hook and be able to explain how they used it to lift heavy loads.
Old photographs are a powerful device for revisiting the past. Collect photos that capture friends, families, locations, or hobbies important to the client.
Ask the client to talk about what each one means to them and the roles each person and place played in their lives.
Dancing and moving to music, especially from much earlier in the client’s life, can remind them of happier times, engaging in skills they learned many years ago while recollecting friends from that era.
4. Creating a memory box
Memory boxes are wonderful to put together and serve as valuable tools to revisit, especially if memories are fading.
Find photos, keepsakes, books, certificates, and even small items of clothing that promote remembrance and foster connections to earlier times and those here now.
20 Insightful Life Review Therapy Questions
Life therapy combines several different and powerful reminiscence interventions. Some are unstructured, such as a whole life review, while others are more structured, often using questions to cover particular events (Preschl et al., 2012).
The following 20 questions help uncover more of the client’s past and encourages them to reminisce (Life Review Interview Manual, n.d.):
When and where were you born?
Where did you grow up?
What was your community like growing up?
What kind of schooling did you have?
Tell me about your parents/stepparents.
Did you have any siblings? Tell me about them.
How would you describe yourself during your childhood?
What was it like when you were a teenager?
Did you marry? At what age? If not, why not?
Tell me about your marriage, your first job, and leaving home.
Tell me about your career. What were you doing in your 30s, 40s, and 50s?
Did you have children? Tell me about raising your children.
What was your relationship with your children over the years?
Do you have a close relationship with your children now?
Who else are you close to?
Who have been the most influential people at various stages in your life? Why? When? What were you doing at that time?
Who are the important people in your life now?
Do you keep in touch with any of your old friends?
If you had to pick one person who significantly impacted your life, who would it be? And why?
How have your friendships changed through the years?
Resources for Reminiscence Therapy and Life Review Therapy
We’ve listed several websites and books that contain valuable information on reminiscence therapy and life review treatment, along with some helpful activities.
The Human Condition
This resource explores the background of life review therapy and introduces some practical activities to engage with clients.
The Life Certificate
One of the most challenging times in our life is enduring the death of a loved one. We can help clients cope with grief by remembering good things about the deceased.
Try out the following four steps:
Step one – Reflect on special memories of your loved one.
Step two – Add those special memories to your life certificate.
Step three – Ask yourself:
What do those memories mean to you?
How does it feel to remember your loved one in this way?
How would you describe the effect your loved one had on your life?
Step four – Add the answers to the life certificate and sign it.
Continuing the Bond to the Deceased Through Ritual
After losing someone close, maintaining connections to our loved ones is vital.
This tool cultivates continuing bonds by celebrating various aspects of the deceased person’s life.
Answer each of the following:
Step one – Birthday celebration: How did you and your loved one celebrate their birthday?
Step two – Death anniversary: What does this day mean to you? How would you like to spend the day?
Step three – What activities, places, or occasions did you and your loved one enjoy?
A Take-Home Message
Reminiscence therapy and life review therapy offer practical psychosocial interventions to help individuals recall and process past events to support their mental wellbeing.
In reminiscence therapy, sharing stories and memories promotes the client’s social interaction, improves their mood, and enhances their self-worth.
And it works. Studies have found that it can ease depression, anxiety, and cognitive difficulties across various disorders and patient groups (Daniels et al., 2015; Kleijn et al., 2018; Reitano et al., 2023; Cuevas et al., 2020).
While outwardly similar, life review therapy focuses on integrating positive and negative life events into a meaningful narrative. By emphasizing the importance of life stories, experiences, and memories, it supports clients in various populations, including those in their final years or dealing with past or present trauma.
Life review therapy can help clients accept their lives and create a sense of wholeness and coherence when facing death.
By incorporating reminiscence therapy and life review therapy into their treatments, therapists can support clients as they reconnect with positive emotions, improve their relationships, and foster mental wellbeing while enhancing their overall quality of life.
Reminiscence therapy benefits clients dealing with illness or trauma or approaching the end of life.
How effective is reminiscence therapy?
The approach has proven effective in alleviating depression, anxiety, and cognitive issues across various disorders and patient groups.
What is the purpose of life review therapy?
Life review therapy supports clients as they integrate positive and negative life events into a meaningful narrative, promoting a sense of wholeness and coherence.
Why is a life review important?
It helps individuals accept their lives, feel connected to others, and experience a sense of meaning and wholeness, particularly when facing death.
Ando, M., Morita, T., Miyashita, M., Sanjo, M., Kira, H., & Shima, Y. (2011). Factors that influence the efficacy of bereavement life review therapy for spiritual well-being: A qualitative analysis. Supportive Care inCancer, 19, 309–314.
Ando, M., Marquez-Wong, F., Simon, G., Kira, H., & Becker, C. (2015). Bereavement life review improves spiritual well-being and ameliorates depression among American caregivers. Palliative & Supportive Care, 13(2), 319–325.
Cuevas, P. E., Davidson, P. M., Mejilla, J. L., & Rodney, T. W. (2020). Reminiscence therapy for older adults with Alzheimer’s disease: A literature review. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 29(3), 364–371.
Daniels, L. R., Boehnlein, J., & McCallion, P. (2015). Aging, depression, and wisdom: A pilot study of life-review intervention and PTSD treatment with two groups of Vietnam veterans. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 58(4), 420–436.
Haight, B. K., Bachman, D. L., Hendrix, S., Wagner, M. T., Meeks, A., & Johnson, J. (2003). Life review: Treating the dyadic family unit with dementia. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 10(3), 165–174.
Keall, R. M. Clayton, J. M., & Butow, P. N. (2015). Therapeutic life review in palliative care: A systematic review of quantitative evaluations. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 49(4), 747–761.
Kleijn, G., Lissenberg-Witte, B. I., Bohlmeijer, E. T., Steunenberg, B., Knipscheer-Kuijpers, K., Willemsen, V., Becker, A., Smit, E. F., Eeltink, C. M., Bruynzeel, A. M., van der Vorst, M., de Bree, R., Leemans, C. R., van den Brekel, M. W., Cuijpers, P., & Verdonck-de Leeuw, I. M. (2018). The efficacy of life review therapy combined with memory specificity training (LRT-MST) targeting cancer patients in palliative care: A randomized controlled trial. PLOS ONE, 13(5).
Kleijn, G., van Uden-Kraan, C. F., Bohlmeijer, E. T., Becker-Commissaris, A., Pronk, M., Willemsen, V., Cuijpers, P., & Verdonck-de Leeuw, I. M. (2019). Patients’ experiences of life review therapy combined with memory specificity training (LRT-MST) targeting cancer patients in palliative care. Supportive Care in Cancer, 27(9), 3311–3319.
Koppel, J., & Rubin, D. C. (2016). Recent advances in understanding the reminiscence bump: The importance of cues in guiding recall from autobiographical memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(2), 135–149.
Korte, J., Bohlmeijer, E. T. & Smit, F. (2009). Prevention of depression and anxiety in later life: Design of a randomized controlled trial for the clinical and economic evaluation of a life-review intervention. BMC PublicHealth, 9, 250.
Life Review Interview Manual. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www2.clarku.edu/faculty/dmerrill/soc180/manual.doc.
Preschl, B., Maercker, A., Wagner, B., Forstmeier, S., Baños, R. M., Alcañiz, M., Castilla, D., & Botella, C. (2012). Life-review therapy with computer supplements for depression in the elderly: A randomized controlled trial. Aging & Mental Health, 16(8), 964–974.
Reitano, M. R., Guidetti, M., Maiorana, N. V., De Sandi, A., Carusi, F., Rosci, C., Ruggiero, F., Poletti, B., Ticozzi, N., Mameli, F., Barbieri, S., Silani, V., Priori, A., & Ferrucci, R. (2023). The effects of a new integrated and multidisciplinary cognitive rehabilitation program based on mindfulness and reminiscence therapy in patients with Parkinson’s disease and mild cognitive impairment: A pilot study. Brain Sciences, 13(2), 201.
Schweitzer, P., & Bruce, E. (2008). Remembering yesterday, caring today: Reminiscence in dementia care: A guide to good practice. Jessica Kingsley.
Sharif, F., Jahanbin, I., Amirsadat, A., & Hosseini Moghadam, M. (2018). Effectiveness of life review therapy on quality of life in the late life at day care centers of Shiraz, Iran: A randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Community-Based Nursing and Midwifery, 6(2), 136–145.
Sun, J., Jiang, J., Wang, Y., Zhang, M., Dong, L., Li, K., & Wu, C. (2023). The efficacy of reminiscence therapy in cancer-related symptom management: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Integrative Cancer Therapies, 22.
Vuksanovic, D., Green, H. J., Dyck, M., & Morrissey, S. A. (2017). Dignity therapy and life review for Palliative Care Patients: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 53(2).
Zhang, L., Li, Y., Kou, W., Xia, Y., Yu, X., & Du, X. (2021). Reminiscence therapy exhibits alleviation of anxiety and improvement of life quality in Postoperative Gastric Cancer Patients. Medicine, 100(35).
About the author
Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.