By Elisabeth Lopukhin

So many scenarios are conjured up by the word “reminiscence”: a grandmother always comparing everything to “the way it was”, a lonely patient in a nursing home, sitting silently, staring out into space. “Oh, she must be senile,” we think. And yet perhaps it is her wedding day or the birth of her first child that she is remembering. . . .

In our society, people often experience difficulties in listening thoughtfully. Preoccupied with the present and the future, we find old people’s reminiscences to be a meaningless nostalgia and time-consuming. However, towards the end of life, reminiscing becomes essential for a healthy old age. Everyone needs to feel that an impact had been made, to leave something of one’s self behind, to feel that one has not buried the talent given by God. Sharing memories of one’s life helps enhance this needed sense of self and of personal significance.

Unfortunately, it is fairly common for the elderly to suffer from loss of memory for recent events (and to be labeled as forgetful). Yet you might find yourself surprised at the clarity of recall of early life events! From the mental health point of view, reminiscing also becomes an excellent opportunity for the person to reintegrate and resolve past emotional conflicts. Whether the life had been a “success story” or not, the process helps to achieve a general sense of wisdom and serenity. It is thus of great value for any program with the elderly to include a process of encouraging recollections.


Our Church will celebrate its 200th Anniversary in 1994. This would be an especially appropriate time to consider developing within our parishes a program on collecting reminiscences from elderly members who have witnessed significant events in the development of the Orthodox Church in America. These reminiscences can illustrate the historical events and enhance the accuracy of those moments.

As you undertake a Reminiscence Program in your parish, an immediate purpose may be to enrich your own parish archives. (Forwarding copies of such tapes to the OCA Dept. of Archives in Syosset and St. Vladimir’s Seminary Library would be most appreciated.) The recollections can be shared at special parish events, or in church school classes that are studying the history of the Church or of the parish.

Collecting the reminiscences can also increase the value of an existing visitation program of the elderly shut-ins. Whatever the purpose, you will be helping the elderly person emotionally and spiritually.


1) First of all, have a reliable, easy to manage, portable tape recorder and a good supply of tapes. Also have a paper and pencil available.

Choose a quiet location.
Start by setting the tape recorder on a lower setting so it can be raised later. Test the machine, play back and adjust as necessary. Identify the beginning of each session and label each tape right away as you take it out.

2) If you plan your project with the “younger old” population, as in an adult housing project or with a senior citizens group, you may prefer to work with several people at one time. Such a gathering could be called, “Do You Remember?” It could meet perhaps once or twice a month. The members can choose their topics e.g. the happiest day, the saddest event in their life, the most memorable holiday. Encourage them to bring photographs. To avoid any one person dominating the meetings, speakers can proceed in turn, uninterrupted, before any comments are offered or anyone else is given a second turn.

3) If your project is to be within an institution, explain your purpose to some supervising staff member. (They may request that you obtain a release from the resident.)

4) To work with the older, frailer population, it is important to remember that there is a greater chance of physical impairments. For hard of hearing people, find out which ear is better and make sure they see your lips when you talk. You may have to speak closely into the ear. Eye contact is also very important.

With a visually handicapped person, identify yourself and use touch, holding their hand to show you are there. In general, tactile communication is often very soothing and well accepted by most elderly people. Feel comfortable in placing your hand on a shoulder, in holding a hand, in giving a hug. Be aware of any other medical or “ADL” (activities of daily living) limitations.

5) Be prepared. Before you start, obtain a brief background from a staff member or a relative. The information will be useful when and if prompting becomes necessary (“I understand that you were. ...” or “Is it true that. . . .”).

6) During your first interview, establish a friendly rapport. It is good to go slowly. Make sure your memorist understands your reasons: explain your role and that of your tape recorder. Make sure the memorist is ready to start. At the end of the interview, write down the next appointment for the memorist and do keep it!

7) Unless you are working with someone who has (and remembers) witnessing important events, it is likely you will hear, “I had an ordinary life. Why talk to me?” Your role here is to help the person understand that no life is ordinary. You will find, though, that most are eager to be interviewed, feeling that their lives were interesting and important.

8) Allow the memorist to “do” something as well, be it just to hold the tape-recorder as you push the wheelchair.

9) Do not interfere with the flow of memories. If you want to remember a question, jot it down for later. If memories slow down, stimulate recollections with a question or two.

10) Listen visibly, sympathetically and with great attention. Do not phrase your question for yes/no answers. Start with non-controversial questions such as describing a house, the appearance of the person being recollected, or some statistical data.

11) Don’t let silences fluster you. They are often a process of retrieval of information. Or sometimes these moments are needed for the memorist to re-sort and re-integrate emotional experiences of that particular recollection. Crying is natural and therapeutic and should be allowed; gently return to the topic.

12. Do allow the memorist to complain, but in most cases it is better to make the visit positive and to affirm what is right. Emotional stability is enhanced by re-stating the truth, kindly.

Do not make false reassurances. If the reminiscence becomes excessive, morbid or disorganized, do help to return onto the memory track again.

13) The memorist will have better and worse days on which he or she may be depressed or confused. It is best then, to cut the visit short, making sure the memorist is made to feel that it is “O.K.” to have a bad day.

14) Remember that the purpose of your conversations is not to change or counsel or soothe, but to allow the person to record their own version of their history.

These are general remarks, geared perhaps more to sensitize than to direct a process of collecting reminiscences. It is important to remember that regardless of your project’s goals and purposes, the benefits derived from interacting with the elderly who are usually lonely, will be exceedingly rewarding, both to the memorist and to the listener. If your personal response to the memorist is genuine, and if you give of yourself, deep friendships can result in spite of age differences.

N.B.. AARP ( has a program in training volunteers to use their listening and visiting skills with older individuals.

For more information, contact: Ms Bette Davis, 1909 K Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20049. Tel: (202) 728-4824.

Another available resource is a Skit that can be purchased for $5 from the Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged, 120 W. 106th St., New York, NY 10025. It is entitled, “Living History Project.”

Elisabeth Lopukhin is the Social Services Coordinator at the Tolstoy Foundation Nursing Home in Valley Cottage, N.Y. She is also an Executive Committee member of the OCA Department of Senior Life and Ministry.