sixtyandme logo
We are community supported and may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Learn more

Can Nostalgia Really Help to Amplify Dementia Treatment?

By Margaret Manning January 15, 2017 Caregiving

Dementia could be quite depressing for both the person who suffers from it and those who care for them. Is there a way to bring joy into a life of deteriorating mentality? Our guest today, Lori La Bey, will share with us the importance of nostalgia and happy memories when dealing with dementia. Enjoy the show!


Margaret Manning:

My guest today is Lori La Bey who is an advocate for improving the conversation about dementia and Alzheimer’s. She’s doing some incredible work toward creating a more dementia-friendly society. I’m so thrilled to have you here, Lori. Welcome.

Lori La Bey:

Thank you for having me.


All of our videos so far, including the ones on the stages of Alzheimer’s and the various support groups available, have been so educational. Today I want you to talk about the trending idea of introducing nostalgia into the dementia treatment process.

A good example of this technique is playing music that brings back a memory which stimulates the brain. Another example is creating a home where people can place a door from their house in their room. Tell us your opinion about this nostalgia trend.


I think nostalgia is really important. In my opinion, it all gets back to social engagement: How do we engage better? As the disease progresses, one of the things that we have to be really conscious of is our emotional connection. This has to do with our relationships, which are important to everybody. We all want to be connected to someone or something.

Music and possessions are extremely powerful. They trigger moments as well as a really valuable emotion that gets us back to a content happy state. Aroma is another trigger. It could be a perfume or something cooking that can bring people back in time.

I remember my mom nibbling on a corn on the cob one time. As I was watching her, I was thinking, “I want what she has right now.” She was so happy and content, so into this piece of corn, and it was a beautiful thing. She was probably back at a state fare when she was younger. She was so joyful!

Nostalgia can be triggered by a lot of different senses. Music is probably the most powerful one we are hearing about, and I think that has really helped trigger a lot of these other avenues as well. People are starting to take social engagement more seriously, where it was kind of poo-pooed before. If it wasn’t a pill, it was thought to have no effect.

Nowadays, people are seeing the actual influence of music. There is a company called Alzheimer’s Music Connect, for example, that has a pattern depending on their music. Their research shows that after listening to their music people can be more cognitively alert and engaged for up to three hours.

That’s because music comprehension uses a different part of the brain; this creative part of the brain is usually the last one to go. That’s very important.

Colors can also be important. Some people have different colors of appliances over the years. I know we went from gold to green to white to black to silver. Some are using those types of things to make a person feel more comfortable.

Décor can be used as a trigger, too. It includes drapes or carpet, types of furniture or a rotary phone. An old Victrola for playing records, a quilt somebody made, photos and other mementos fall in this group.


Yes, textures and textiles. This is all very interesting. As you’re talking, I’m actually imagining these things myself. They’re very evocative when you use language in a descriptive way. This made me think that even when you are chatting with someone with dementia you should create a picture with words.

Instead of asking, “Do you remember when we did this?” it might be better if you just describe the event or object. “Do you remember you had that blue coat with that amazing fur color on it? I bet it kept brushing on your face.”


This is exactly true. When we ask, “Do you remember this?” remembering becomes a test, and that puts stress on the person. It’s a right or wrong kind of question, and a lot of times they’ll say they don’t even want to answer that. When you’re using your descriptive words, you’re getting the feeling of the moment.

We can also show them photos and ask, “What do you think when you see this picture? What comes to mind? How does it make you feel?” Then you’ll find out if they remember people in the picture; can they recognize it’s a birthday party or a Christmas holiday?

Here, it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about letting them participate in the conversation without judgment and allowing them to get to that joyful, peaceful place. We all want that, so why would we try to take that away from people with dementia? I think part of it is, we don’t even know we’re taking it away, because we are so busy being right or wrong.


As a care-partner I think you’re always trying to do the right thing. You’re not leading the conversation in that direction because you think it’s going to hurt the person. That’s why there are experts and people who are trained at bringing that out; they know the right words to do it.


Another thing is, we need to slow down and look for the reactions. We get so used to making someone speak to us, and yet three quarters of our communication is non-verbal. For whatever reason, with dementia we almost ignore the non-verbal communication.

We so want somebody to say our name or say our story right. However, we need to look at all the non-verbal communication that’s going on because there’s a whole lot being said through that. We have to slow down, we have to expand and not force a certain type of communication.

We can tell if somebody is cold with them not saying a word. We can tell if somebody is sad or happy or joyful or anxious, and they don’t have to say a word.


And you don’t have to say a word, either.


No. So we can change our reaction. We can change the environment somebody is in around the holidays or if there’s a big event gathering. Big groups aren’t always good for people with dementia. They can get really agitated or anxious; they might want to pull away or even start wandering because it’s just too loud for them.

There may be too much noise or too many lights. We can change that. We can ask the person to help us with something and pull them out of that room. It’s not about, “I have to take care of you,” but let them help you do something. Be gracious about how you make that change in the environment.


In terms of nostalgia though, do you know more about doing things that are specifically nostalgic, like finding something that reminds them of a certain event? Do you know of any people that are writing about this topic or doing interesting work on it?


There is a company in Chicago, though I’m uncertain of the name, that is doing a combination with music and nostalgia. It’s just in Chicago, Illinois right now, but they are hoping to expand and franchise the technique which involves customizing music and doing things through pictures.

One of the things they would ask is, “Where did you grow up?” Then they would find your block and what it used to look like when you were growing up. Naturally, it doesn’t look the same today as it did back then. They’ll go back and find things from even your school years.


High school pictures and things.


Exactly. This technique is pretty cool and different. When I spoke with them I said, “Gosh, I have an old crystal doorknob I would love to give to you. It would probably be more of use to you than it is just sitting on my mantel. It has some meaning and memory to me, but I think it would be a good texture piece for people to be able to touch.”

They can also create mobile kits of different items. For instance, let’s say somebody has to move, maybe a couple is downsizing from a house to a townhome or apartment, or maybe somebody has to move into a memory care facility. They don’t have to take all of their possessions with the move, but they can take special things to trigger memories.

Maybe they’ll take a teacup, which will be prominently placed. It can trigger all those memories of little gatherings like holidays or high tea. They don’t have to take everything; it can just be something special.


If you’re looking after someone who is just beginning to show early signs of dementia, you could proactively watch for things that bring them joy. Make a note of those things; it’s important to write them down.

Maybe there is a particular thing that they always held onto; it could be as simple as a piece of crystal. I have a little crystal heart that I carry everywhere with me. I should probably make a note of that right now that it is something I treasure.


A lot of times we aren’t even conscious of what brings us joy. I think it’s a good idea, especially with aging groups like Sixty and me, to sit down and write a list of what brings you joy and then share it with people.


Yes, so that they know how to cheer you up when you’re feeling depressed. They can just bring your favorite topics into the conversation somehow. Nostalgia seems to be so powerful. The whole research that deals with understanding the complicated mechanisms of the brain is amazing.

You’ve probably seen that video of the elderly gentleman who is in a nursery home. Basically, he is not talking to anyone, and his niece comes in with a headset and plays him music. Before you know it, he’s singing all the words, and he’s just transformed. How does that work?


The video is called Alive Inside, and you can see it in YouTube or Netflix. The full length movie shows that the music method works not just for dementia, but for depression, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia. It works because that’s how we’re wired; songs are very emotional to us. I can’t tell you the name of a song or the band that plays it, but I can tell you if I like it and what it makes me feel.


Yes, it’s emotional; definitely not intellectual.


In our family, we used to go out and drive for Christmas lights. That used to bring my mom such great joy. Fall, with its changing colors and passing seasons, is so calming. We used to take my mom for a ride, and she would talk about those things for ages because they brought her so much joy.


It’s funny that you would mention that. My mom didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but she had cancer, and she died when she was only 50. I remember the last Christmas that we spent together; she just wanted to go down to the downtown Detroit and see the lights.

We just drove around the city, up and down the side streets, looking at houses. I don’t think we said two words, but in that moment I felt more connected with her than ever. It’s so amazing that one simple thing brings together a whole spectrum of memories and emotions. It could be Christmas lights, family, presents, love, acceptance, or all of them together.


It’s that sense of deep belonging, and I love how you said, “We didn’t talk.” It’s because you didn’t need to. Nowadays we’re so used to filling air.


Speak about filling air, it’s time we let our viewers go back and watch this video again, and learn from it. There is more about nostalgia that we’ll cover soon, and we’ll get you back to talk about that. I really appreciate your time. Have you got any last words to people who are dealing with dementia as a patient or a care partner?


I would say, just be kind to them and be kind to yourself. Don’t let your inner thoughts beat you up. Be respectful and know that you’ll always have another moment to try something different. Treat both the person with dementia and their care partners with compassion. Ask them how you can help.


You are a true advocate for this cause, Lori. You’ve got lots more to do, and I know these are the early, early days in this thing. You are certainly leading the way, and I’m so thrilled to have had you on. Thanks a lot. We will have you back on soon.

Is there a special place or thing that always brings you joy? What memories do you connect with the best years of your life? Does nostalgia make you, personally, feel better? Please join the conversation!

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


The Author

Margaret Manning is the founder of Sixty and Me. She is an entrepreneur, author and speaker. Margaret is passionate about building dynamic and engaged communities that improve lives and change perceptions. Margaret can be contacted at

You Might Also Like