The Value of Memories and Nostalgia

Exploring Our Memories in Later Life

Cliff took the month off so I’m going solo.

That gives me a chance to mix it up on the subject of memory and aging. Rather than talking about the symptoms of memory loss, which so many of us are inclined to do and worry about given the widespread impact that Alzheimer’s Disease and related disorders are having in our communities, I want to consider the vast array of memories that the majority of us will retain over the long haul. I also want to underscore the importance those memories play in our lives. The fact is there is considerable therapeutic value to be derived from visiting our past lives.

Increasingly we are realizing the importance of reminiscence in helping individuals address their lives and prepare successfully for their futures. Reminiscence, the act of remembering or telling someone about the past can have a great deal of value. Research has shown that reminiscing has the capacity to reduce loneliness, boredom, stress and depression. It can also help considerably in dealing with traumatic experiences, coping with the challenges of daily living, and becoming more sensitive to and less fearful of things that are unfamiliar to us. But, reminiscing has value beyond its application as a therapeutic tool that aims to address a variety of health and mental health issues that we may be struggling with. Reminiscing is just plain enjoyable. Once considered a disorder ever since the term was coined in 1688 by a Swiss physician who attributed soldiers’ mental and physical illnesses to their longing to return home, today nostalgic thinking is viewed much more positively. Sharing a nostalgic moment with your partner, a relative, or a friend can bring you closer together. It can remind you of your roots, confirm your accomplishments, and, as a consequence, make you feel good about yourself and how you have chosen to live your life.

Growing older does not preclude us from using our imagination and calling upon some particularly vivid recollections from the past including recalling events and experiences with rather remarkable clarity that occurred much early in our lives. Of course, the ways in which our memory works can be intriguing and mystifying. We may not remember where we put the keys to the car or our cellphones last night, or what we had for dinner just yesterday, but just ask us about that night at the high school prom, buying that first car, or the birth of our children and low and behold your mind becomes sharp as a tack and the descriptions amazingly clear.

Now I am not going to suggest that all we recall is going to be heart-warming or even pleasant. True, some of what we recall will indeed be uplifting and soothing to the soul and you will want to share it with whoever will listen. But other memories will, no doubt, need to remain private and be considered in the context of sort of a “silent monologue” in your own mind without witnesses. That is just fine. Exploring your personal life history inevitably gives rise to the full gamut of emotions – happiness and joy, sadness and regret, satisfaction and pride, guilt and embarrassment, and so much more.

Memories can cut both ways – they can sadden us or elevate our spirits. They can also imprison us or set us free. We like to think that memories can serve to remind us of the richness in our lives, of those experiences that confirm that our past has been significant and worthwhile while at the same time realizing that the sum total of those experiences has been a combination of both good and bad decisions as well as successes and failures.

Reminiscing can help us come to grips with our mistakes, reconcile our defeats, and savor our victories. Remembering can also assist us in reconciling the reality of our lives with the ideal, help us accept and even forgive those who have hurt us and guide us in working through past conflicts. Our memories of past actions of lessons learned can be instructive, teaching us how to more successfully approach current challenges and solve problems in the here and now. And, sharing our past with others, including our children and grandchildren, through storytelling and recounting past events, is a great way to use our memories to impart traditional values, teach moral lessons, and transmit our family’s history and cultural heritage.

Memories are funny. There are many things that can unexpectedly trigger special nostalgic moments – a smell, a piece of clothing, a picture, a song, or a sound. And those kinds of moments happen more often than you might think. Most people report experiencing nostalgic memories at least once a week, and nearly half of us as often as three or four times a week. Interestingly, research indicates that nostalgic memories are highest in young adulthood, are less frequent in middle age, and rise again in old age.

No question about it, the brain is an amazing organ. Take advantage of it by thinking back on the good times and the not so good times. I don’t mean to suggest that you should live in the past. What I’m encouraging you to do is think about memorable experiences, events, and relationships as representing opportunities to resolve for yourself past conflicts and make sense of your own life. I also encourage you to use those moments as an opportunity to share with others your personal wisdom and lessons learned over a lifetime.

Oh, and by the way, if you find you are forgetting more things than you would like – take a stroll, literally. Believe it or not, research shows that brisk walking can increase the size of the brain region involved in memory formation. Moderate physical exercise can help protect the brain as we age. The region of the brain that is called the hippocampus shrinks as we grow older – it is a normal part of the aging process. This can contribute to forgetfulness, memory loss and even an increased risk of dementia. Remaining physically fit is associated with both increased hippocampus size and improved cognitive ability.

Nostalgically yours,

(This month’s column is based on an article I wrote last year in Maine Seniors Magazine)

Len Kaye

About Len Kaye

Dr. Lenard W. Kaye is Professor of Social Work at the University of Maine School of Social Work and Director of the UMaine Center on Aging.