Is it Nostalgia or Living in the Past?

By August 21, 2015Aging in Place

One of the best things about knowing a senior citizen is that they can tell you how the world used to be. It’s healthy for an older person to reminiscence, right? Not always. Psychologists now know that too much “past-oriented” thinking can be a display of dissatisfaction with the present.

The past becomes a problem when an elderly person lives completely in their mind, thinking of days gone by and begins to ignore the present. This is commonly found in older people who are unhappy with their surroundings and their quality of life. What are some causes of a senior disregarding the present for the past?

  • Lack of stimulus
  • Inability to actively participate in society
  • Feeling that the only control left over their own life is that “No one can take away my past”

As people age, they naturally become less physically active. This can dramatically decrease the quality of life for someone who has spent their life skiing or swimming for pleasure. The lack of physical stimulus can send a senior into nostalgia-mode, making it difficult for them to have any interest in the present. Adding to the problem is the fact that our society easily marginalizes the elderly because they cannot actively participate as younger people can. When this happens, the senior’s memories can become all they have. By clinging to them and realizing that their past is something that no one can take away from them, they find solace.

Memories and old stories are not inherently bad things, but there is a limit to which we should all be focusing on our past and living within ourselves. As we age, it’s natural to begin to take account of our lives, what’s gone by, and the decisions we’ve made. However, that can quickly become tiresome for children and grandchildren as the senior repeats the same stories over and over again. It may be important for the senior to express these memories. Repetitive stories can easily be handled by saying “Oh, I remember you telling me that,” and asking for more details. It’s also an opportunity to redirect the senior by saying, “I remember that story but you never told me what happened after that.” Regardless of the repetition, always show interest to show respect.

Conversations should be encouraged between generations, even if it begins with a story the senior has told many times. The grandfather learns about what’s cool now and the grandchild learns about what was cool way back when. While indulging in nostalgia and describing their younger years, a senior is kept in the present by describing it to someone who wasn’t there. It should be a learning experience and people around the senior should be encouraged to write down these valuable memories and reflections of the past. Keep in mind, old memories and stories are not a bad thing in any way. The important thing for all of us to remember is “everything in moderation.”

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