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The Benefit of Keeping Memories Alive in Old Age

8 May 1945: A national holiday is declared for VE Day, marking the victorious end of the war in Europe. In nearly six years of war, hundreds of thousands of British troops have made the ultimate sacrifice. On the home front, some 43,000 civilians have died in the Blitz. Everyone in the country has suffered the privations of rationing and the fear that the unthinkable – defeat to Nazi Germany – would come to pass.

Impromptu street parties break out across the nation as euphoric crowds gather to celebrate victory. In London over a million people congregate at Trafalgar Square and up the Mall to Buckingham Palace, where King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill appear before jubilant crowds. 

'Winston Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall in London as they celebrate VE Day, 8 May 1945. H41849' from Wikimedia Commons

People dance in the streets to music provided by gramophones, accordions and barrel organs. Strangers hug one another. Thousands of people attend one of the ten thanksgiving services St Paul’s Cathedral holds on this day. Licensing hours are relaxed, and the city’s dance halls stay open until midnight. (Churchill has thoughtfully checked beforehand with the Ministry of Food to be sure beer supplies are sufficient.)

Even Princess Elizabeth, age 19, is caught up in the joyous celebrations. She and Princess Margaret slip out of the palace to join the revellers on the street. The future queen will later reminisce, “I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.”

CWAC Celebrating VE-Day London 1945’ by Galt Museum & Archives on The Commons on Flickr

Fast-forward to VE Day 2020. 75 years on, these scenes from history might seem to many of us to be just that – history. Interesting, yes, and definitely worth commemorating, but nothing that affects us personally. But to those who lived through the war and witnessed the Allied victory, VE Day remains a vibrant memory.

The Power of Reminiscence for the Elderly

We’re all aware that older people often find events of the past easier to remember than present circumstances. But perhaps less well known is how important it is to cultivate a loved one’s memory.

Elderly people can be particularly susceptible to feelings of powerlessness. Making the transition to accept care from others for personal tasks they were once capable of performing themselves is sometimes difficult, even humiliating. 

If your loved ones are able to express their memories, this can offset their sense of helplessness. Not only do memories evoke a time in their lives when they were strong and self-sufficient – when it comes to the past, the elderly are the experts! Sharing memories from past times often gives them a sense of agency too often lacking in their daily lives. They can gain a sense of independence and confidence in sharing something valuable that only they know.

How can we help our loved ones share their stories?

How to keep a loved one’s memory alive? The most obvious way to encourage reminiscences is through asking questions. It’s best to keep these open-ended and not to worry if the answers stray from the point. Engaged listening is the goal; you needn’t conduct an oral history interview!

Some people respond better to different kinds of stimuli rather than direct questions. Other ways you can start a memory session are through photos, physical mementos, or perhaps something that evokes a particular taste or smell. Music is an especially effective and pleasurable way to bring forgotten memories to life. (Listen together to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” and we guarantee you’ll both be in tears – in a good way!)

When should we back off?

As always, it’s important to be sensitive. If Mum suffers from memory impairment, she could become distressed if she can’t answer your questions. 

And some memories, of course, are painful. Talking about difficult subjects can be therapeutic for the elderly just as it can for anyone, but if it leads to agitation, you should be ready to redirect the conversation.

Celebrating VE Day During Lockdown

These days we’re facing a new national threat in the form of the coronavirus, and like the war, this too can tear families apart. When lockdown and social distancing prevent you from being with family members to mark a special occasion such as the 75th anniversary of VE Day, it’s comforting to know that our care homes are looking after your loved ones – and we know how to throw a party! 

At Riverdale Care Home last Friday our residents enjoyed the lovely weather as we gathered for VE Day 2020. It was a day of celebration, appreciation and reminiscence – the perfect occasion to share memories and give thanks! We were honoured to be joined by Captain Steve Fagen, who took the salute for the two minute’s silence and officially opened our new Riverdale summer house.   

Check out our Facebook page to view our latest festivities across the care home group. At Westgate Healthcare we never miss an opportunity to celebrate a holiday – both to cherish old memories and to create new ones.

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