We wanted to find out what effect reminiscence therapy (RT) has on people with dementia. In particular, we were interested in effects on quality of life, communication, cognition (the general ability to think and remember), mood, daily activities and relationships. We were also interested in any effects on carers.
RT involves discussing events and experiences from the past. It aims to evoke memories, stimulate mental activity and improve well-being. Reminiscence is often assisted by props such as videos, pictures and objects. It can take place in a group or be done with a person on their own, when it often results in some form of life-story book being created. RT helps older people with depression. It may be suitable for people with dementia both because depression is common in dementia and because people with dementia typically have a better memory for the distant past than for recent events.
We searched for randomised, controlled trials in which RT was compared with no treatment or with a non-specific activity, such as time spent in general conversation. Our search covered all trials available up to April 2017.
We found 22 trials with 1972 participants to include in the review. All the participants had dementia, mostly of mild or moderate severity. Some of the participants were living at home and some were in care homes. The length of the trials varied from four weeks to two years, and the overall amount of time spent on therapy varied from three to 39 hours. Overall, we thought most of the trials were well conducted.
Looking at all the trials together, there did not seem to be an effect of RT on the quality of life reported by the participants. However, there was probably a slight benefit of treatment in the trials done in care homes, which was not seen in the trials done in the community.
People having RT scored slightly better than the control group on tests of cognition immediately after the course of treatment, but not weeks to months later. It was not clear that the effect was large enough to be important. The effect was most evident in care home studies, which used individual RT, but not in community studies, which used group RT.
We found that group RT and RT in community settings may have a positive effect on the communication and interaction of the person with dementia immediately after the end of treatment, and probably also weeks to months later, although the effect was small.
Apart from a probable slight benefit of individual RT on scales measuring depressed mood, we found no evidence for effects of RT on other outcomes, such as agitation, ability to carry out daily activities or relationships with other people. We found no evidence of harmful effects of RT for the people with dementia themselves.
We found no effect of RT on family carers other than a suggestion that it made carers slightly more anxious in two large studies of joint reminiscence work. In this type of RT, the carers and the people with dementia were both directly involved in the reminiscence sessions.
We were encouraged to find that the amount and quality of research on RT for dementia has increased considerably since the last version of this review. We concluded that the effects of RT vary, depending on the way it is given and whether it takes place in care homes or the community. However, there is some evidence that RT can improve quality of life, cognition, communication and possibly mood in people with dementia in some circumstances, although all the benefits were small. More research is needed to understand these differences and to find out who is likely to benefit most from what type of RT.