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Reminiscence and life review are distinctively and central features of late life – Discuss

It is often forgotten that the developmental psychologist Charlotts Buhler in Vienna had written already in the 1930’s, of reminiscence as an inevitable part of the ageing process resulting from the individual’s need to substantiate his or her life in the face of loss of ability (1933)

The way in which reminiscence has become noteworthy in the study of ageing is a remarkable one.It has altered its implication from negative to positive-from being perceived as a sign of mental deterioration to being valued as a normal if not essential component of successful ageing- all in the time frame of less than 10 years.


REM Many of the problems arise when researchers continue to generate hypothesis that are left untested, and in turn researchers continue to conduct projects without clear theoretical foundations.Theoretical conceptions such as ego integrity remain vaguely defined and resistant to contrary experimental findings, worse still is this inability to arrive or at least agree on, an operational definition.

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[Another problem is the fact that the current framework limits the research entirely…i.e rarely work done on life span-longitudinal reminiscing because it has been stated that it is only in old age and universal so cultural differences haven’t been explored]

As Haight (1991) noted, labels suggested by various researchers, such as Molinari and Reichlin (1984-1985), Lo Gerfo (1980) and Coleman (1974), are a “step in the right direction, but none have been adopted as a permanent framework” (1991, p.9) Until such a framework is operational, making generalisations about the nature and functions of the various types of reminiscence will remain difficult. On the contrary Butler states that perhaps life review and reminiscence are not amenable to rigid and precise definitions.

UNRUH (89) levels of reminiscing A p. 148

REMINISCNCE According to Webster & Haight reminiscence is highly spontaneous with little structure. It can contain the element of evaluation, but it is not an integral part of reminiscing. The presence or absence of evaluation in reminiscence is probably more dependant on individual personality traits than on any thing provided by modality. Reminiscing is rated low on comprehensiveness, since simple reminiscence involves the recall of relatively independent, isolated episodes from our past. There is no necessary logic, sequence, or theme. There is also no systematic exploration of developmental blocks of time, or attempts to place the recalled memory within a broader psychosocial context.


Life review differs from simple reminiscence on many of these dimensions. The spontaneity of the life review is lower than of simple reminiscence because more specific triggers are required to elicit it. Many authours suggest that the life review is triggered by external life events, generally however not exclusively of a crisis or transitional nature. Stress or developmental milestones may prompt a reassessment of past accomplishments, values and goals. The life review is also more structured and comprehensive than simple reminiscence. Life review tends to have sequential recounting from childhood experiences to the present or an identification and systematic elaboration of developmental concerns.

There is a grater effort to evaluate the recalled memories in order to derive meaning and purpose. This may entail working through painful emotional episodes as well as positive, self-enhancing memories. Evaluation involves renegotiating previous sources of anger, shame, embarrassment, guilt and other assorted negative emotions can be reconstrued in more positive terms. Webster and Young (1988) have suggested that a comprehensive life review entails the recall, evaluation, and synthesis of positive and negative memories. Recall, or simple reminiscence, is therefore only one part of the life review process.


According to Erickson (1959, 1963, 1982), one of the most important functions of reminiscing is to help the individual achieve ego integrity. This is the cumulative product of having successfully resolved the earlier stages of development. It is’ reaping of the benefits of the life richly spent, not only in the storehouse of memories, but in the function of problems worked through, plans executed, mediation undertaken, suffering survived’ (Ulanov, 1981, p. 113). The attainment of ego integrity is a lifelong process, according to Erickson. It depends on successful management of developmental conflicts, acceptance of one’s life cycle without regrets, and harmonization of different stages of life without fear of death. The hallmark of ego integrity is wisdom.

Butlers 1975 view of ego integrity is less ambitious, he believes that people take pride in feeling of having done their best, of having met challenge and difficulty and sometimes from simply having survived terrible odds, and it is this quality of serenity and wisdom which is derived from resolving personal conflicts.

Butler suggests that the life review is the primary mechanism whereby ego integrity is achieved.

Erickson (1963) believed that mastery is a major source of satisfaction and proposed that the desire to achieve autonomy begins in early childhood. The subsequent developmental tasks to achieve initiative, competence and generativity are all related to the need for mastery. Both Adler (1927/1957, 1958) and Fromm (1947) postulated that people possess an innate drive to overcome helplessness experienced in childhood through mastery over their environment. The task of maintaining a sense of agency and mastery becomes increasingly difficult in later years. Regardless of how we glorify the golden age, sooner or later the harsh realities of ageing descend on all of us.

Unless we die prematurely, we all suffer the relentless ageing process. Old age can be a breeding ground for feelings of inferiority because of diminished coping resources and the chronicity of age related problems. We feel helpless when there is no cure to health problems and when our memories are failing us. We are made to feel inferior when we have to ask others to do this we used to do well. These memories may be compounded by memories of childhood situations associations with feelings of inferiority. It has been suggested that the active mastery of middle age changes into more positive mode, or even a magic mode of mastery in old age (neugarten & Gutmann, 1958). In their desire for greater mastery, the elderly’s perception of personal control may become highly inflated sometimes their perceived control may be based on wishful thinking and fantasy. P. 33

Forty years have passed since Butler first suggested the important role of reminiscing in later life. His research has retained the attention of researchers from a range of disciplines, however subsequent studies have been at time inconclusive, contradictory and unclear about the nature and function of reminiscing. The majority of researchers have focused their studies exclusively on older individuals, which infers that reminiscence is unique to the later stages of life. Mirriam 1993 notes that the assumptions about the universality of reminiscence amongst older adults may be false or stereotypical, since age may not be the most significant factor in reminiscence behaviour.

LIFE REVIEW Definitions of reminiscence are remarkably diverse. Butler described the life review as ‘a naturally occurring, universal mental process characterised by the progressive return to consciousness of past experiences, and particularly the resurgence of unresolved conflicts (1963, p.66) He argued that the life review is conceived as a ‘possible response to the biological fact of death’

What is clear about reminiscing is that it is a selective process in which memories are evoked and reconstructed, probably with varying degrees of intensity and emotional involvement. UNRUH 1989 orders or levels of the past!!!

The idea that there may be different levels to the reminiscing process may alleviate the confusion of contradictory findings in studies.

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