Combat loneliness and depression by sharing memories: Relive those glory days!

The Bottom Line

  • Older adults – especially those in nursing homes – are particularly vulnerable to isolation and depression, which can impact their physical and cognitive health.
  • Reminiscing in groups led by a trained program facilitator can help reduce feelings of loneliness and depression. 

Over the years, many songs have been written about loneliness and feeling alone, and there is a reason why this message resonates with so many of us. Almost everyone has experienced those feelings at one time or another and loneliness is very common among older adults. There are real health consequences to this social issue; loneliness and social isolation (the absence of fulfilling relationships, a sense of belonging and meaningful social contacts) can result in poor physical and mental health (1), lower quality of life (2), and even premature death (3) largely because of the strong relationship between social isolation and depression (4;5).

You don’t have to live alone to feel lonely. In fact, social isolation is especially prevalent in long-term care facilities where residents are at high risk of suffering the debilitating effects of depression and a rapid decline in their physical and cognitive abilities as a result (5;6). Research suggests that providing opportunities for residents to actively participate in meaningful social activities can help draw people together and reduce isolation (7).

While hobbies, preferences and tastes differ, it is useful to know which activities are worth signing up for, especially for people who are looking to combat or avoid depression. A systematic review of five studies sought to better understand what programs and activities are best at addressing social isolation and depression among nursing home residents (8). The study participants ranged in age from 77 to 86 years and lived in long-term care facilities in urban communities.

The activities included:

  • Reminiscence therapy in groups, during which participants share personal stories and memories

  • Women-only and men-only facilitator-led social groups

  • Indoor gardening programs conducted with individuals or groups

  • Weekly sessions incorporating Nintendo Wii® games

  • Daily one-hour radio broadcasts

Participants were assessed to determine their levels of depression, loneliness and various related symptoms, such as anxiety, well-being, and life satisfaction.

What the research tells us

Of all of the program options, reminiscence therapy was the most successful, significantly improving both social isolation and depression. Groups led by a program facilitator had the most value, particularly when the facilitators were well-trained (8). The effects of reminiscence therapy may even go beyond loneliness, with another review finding that it can improve quality of life, cognition, communication, and mood in people with dementia by a small amount (9).

Among other effective programs, daily radio broadcasts and men’s social clubs decreased depression and gardening groups decreased loneliness. However, it should be noted that more research is needed about effective approaches for people living in rural areas whose circumstances and isolation may be different from those in urban areas (8). Overall, effective programs are ones that are adaptable and include community participation and productive engagement (11).

So, joining a social or recreational group may be worth your while, especially if it includes a bit of a chit chat or a chin wag (12). As shown in previous studies, talking about accomplishments, reliving happy times and sharing experiences promotes self-esteem and a sense of fulfillment and comfort while helping people connect the past with the present (10).

With age comes change and loss which can bring on feelings of loneliness and despair. Spending quality time with people is an excellent antidote, one that is even more effective when some of that time is spent sharing memories of a life well lived.

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  1. Nicholson NR. Social isolation in older adults: An evolutionary concept analysis. J Adv Nurs. 2009; 65(6):1342-1352.
  2. Heinrich LM, Gullone E. The clinical significant of loneliness: A literature review. Clin Psychol Rev. 2006; 26(6):695-718.
  3. Luo Y, Hawkley L, Waite LJ, et al. Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: A national longitudinal study. Soc Sci Med. 2012; 74(6):907-914.
  4. Aylaz R, Aktürk Ü, Erci  B, et al. Relationship between depression and loneliness in elderly and examination of influential factors. Arch Gerontol Geriat. 2012; 55(3):548-554.
  5. Stek ML, Vinkers DJ, Gussekloo J, et al. Is depression in old age fatal only when people feel lonely? Am J Psychiat. 2005; 162(1):178-180.
  6. Jang Y, Park NS, Dominguez DD, et al. Social engagement in older residents of assisted living facilities. Aging Ment Health. 2014; 18(5):642-647.
  7. Dickens AP, Richards SH, Greaves CJ, et al. Interventions targeting social isolation in older people: A systematic review. BMC Public Health. 2011; 11:647.
  8. Franck L, Molyneux N, Parkinson L. Systematic review of interventions addressing social isolation and depression in aged care clients. Qual Life Res. 2016; 25(6):1395-1407. 
  9. Woods B, O’Philbin L, Farrell EM, et al. Reminiscence therapy for dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018; 3:CD001120. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001120.pub3. 
  10. Apostolo J, Bobrowicz-Campos E, Rodrigues M, et al. The effectiveness of non-pharmacological interventions in older adults with depressive disorders: A systematic review. Int J Nurs Stud. 2016; 58:59-70.
  11. Gardiner C, Geldenhuys G, Gott M. Interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older people: An integrative review. Health Soc Care Community. 2018; 26(2):147-157. doi: 10.1111/hsc.12367. 
  12. Jones ED. Reminiscence therapy for older women with depression: Effects of nursing intervention classification in assisted-living long-term care. J Gerontol Nurs. 2003; 29(7):26-33.  

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.