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If My Memory Serves Me: Virtual Reality Reminiscence Therapy in Older Adult Care

While care for older adults varies in complexity and nuance worldwide, its fundamental objective remains rooted in the pursuit of well-being. As the world’s ageing population continues to grow, this pursuit has been aided by innovation: the development of new approaches to tackle the unique challenges that older adults face. Many of these challenges relate to mental well-being, from feelings of isolation and loneliness to profound conditions such as generalized anxiety and depressive disorders. The mental health needs of older adults are thus as varied as the life experiences that have shaped them.

Tragically, many older adults are unable to recall their own past experiences, often due to cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In response, reminiscence therapy emerged. Reminiscence therapy, commonly referred to as “life review therapy”, is a treatment that utilizes the human senses to help people recall experiences from their past to improve their lives in the present. In recent years, reminiscence therapy has harnessed the sense of sight through virtual reality, a technology that allows its users to immerse themselves in a virtual world. VR reminiscence therapy offers transformative potential in addressing memory-related challenges in care for older adults through high-tech solutions. Despite its promise, acknowledging and navigating its limitations is crucial within the evolving landscape of care for older adults.

Understanding Reminiscence Therapy

Reminiscence therapy was developed by Psychiatrist Robert Butler in 1963 to treat symptoms of dementia. The approach is designed to target the “reminiscence bump”, or the proportionately large number of memories that adults over 40 have from their youth to early adulthood.  Reminiscence therapy operates under the idea that with the right triggers, lost memories can be revived. By reviving these memories through means like conversations, photographs, and music, individuals can recover forgotten parts of their identities. Whether this recollection enables them to reflect on stories that highlight their proudest moments, or work through traumas and unresolved issues, reminiscence therapy serves as a powerful, impactful tool. Some of its benefits include:

  • Reduced social isolation
  • Enhancement of self-esteem and self-value
  • Preservation of connections with loved ones
  • Deeper behavioral insights leading to more personalized care

The Application of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality’s impact spans far beyond gaming and entertainment; its ability to simulate the real world through virtual models has been utilized in domains such as education, healthcare, tourism, architecture, astronomy, and most notably, therapy. As a result, VR’s potential to revolutionize reminisce therapy has gained momentum.

When combined with reminisce therapy approaches, VR can transport users to specific times and places in their past. By leveraging the immersive capabilities of VR, therapy sessions can be personalized to create visual and other sensory triggers that allow them to recall previously forgotten memories.

For example, the New York Times provides the story of John Faulkner, an older adult at an assisted living and memory care center in the United States. Mr. Faulkner experienced a growing sense of emotional withdrawal due to cognitive decline. Traditional reminiscence therapy had failed to resonate with him. Recognizing the need for an innovative approach, the staff introduced VR into his therapy regimen, allowing him to virtually revisit places from his past, like the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, rekindling cherished memories. Within three months of undertaking VR reminiscence therapy, he experienced reduced anxiety and increased sociability, showcasing the transformative potential of VR when applied to care for older adults.

Mr. Faulkner’s story demonstrates a deficiency in traditional reminiscence therapy: its limited personalization. While some older adults may be able to recall events from merely an image, others may need something more tailored to their own experiences before the therapy can begin to resonate with them. By immersing older adults in carefully crafted environments, VR reminiscence therapy allows them to recall and relive cherished experiences. It recognizes that every individual's memories are unique and offers a personalized pathway to rekindle them, fostering emotional connection and cognitive well-being.

Challenges, Limitations, and Ethical Considerations

While VR reminiscence therapy offers great potential, it is crucial to acknowledge its challenges, limitations, and ethical considerations.  Understanding these factors will allow for a more balanced and effective approach to its implementation.

Challenges and Limitations:

  • Technology Accessibility: Some older adults may not be tech savvy, therefore those implementing VR reminiscence therapy need to take responsibility for ensuring users can understand how to operate headsets or receive support from someone who can.
  • Cost: VR technology, including the hardware and software, can be costly. Implementing VR reminiscence therapy on a large scale within care facilities may require substantial financial resources.
  • Content Personalization: Crafting tailored virtual environments that resonate with each individual's unique memories and preferences can be time-consuming and complex. Striking a balance between personalization and practicality is critical.
  • Effectiveness Variation: VR reminiscence therapy's effectiveness can vary from person to person. While some individuals may experience significant benefits, others may respond less positively or not at all, making it vital to manage expectations for the practice.

Ethical Considerations:

  • Informed Consent: Before initiating VR reminiscence therapy, informed consent from older adults or their legal representatives should be obtained. They must fully understand the therapy, its purpose, and its potential effects.
  • Privacy and Data Security: Protecting the privacy of older adults participating in VR therapy is paramount. Facilities must implement strict data security measures to safeguard sensitive information.
  • Dignity and Autonomy: Throughout the therapy, it is essential to uphold the dignity and autonomy of older adults. Their choices, comfort, and emotional well-being must always be prioritized.

While VR reminiscence therapy offers exciting possibilities for enhancing the lives of older adults, it is crucial to address the associated challenges, understand its limitations, and navigate ethical considerations conscientiously. Doing so allows the therapy’s potential to be harnessed while ensuring the well-being and dignity of those who benefit from it.


The intersection of virtual reality and reminiscence therapy can revolutionize care for older adults. While the ageing population grows globally, so does the need for innovative solutions to promote mental well-being. VR reminiscence therapy demonstrates the power of technology to restore memories, help build emotional connections, and improve the overall quality of life for older adults.

Ultimately, the use of VR reminiscence therapy demonstrates a commitment to the well-being and happiness of older adults. As it becomes more refined, we move closer to a world where older adults can make well-informed decisions about revisiting their past, allowing them to cherish and celebrate their memories indefinitely.

About the author:

Dara Adamolekun was a Visiting Student at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. She is a student at Harvard University, where she concentrates in Social Studies with a secondary in Economics.

Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute

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