Can Nostalgia Improve Senior Health?

Nostalgia and senior health

Ah, the good old days!

Close your eyes and think about something wonderful from your past. Remember how it felt. What did you see? What was the weather like that day? Remember the things you heard. Did you taste something on your tongue at that moment? What was the season? Was it at night, or was it during the day? What can you remember that will take you back there?

Close your eyes and think about those things.

Take a long moment…

Now, notice how your body felt as you thought about that happy memory. If you were caught up in a wave of nostalgia, you probably smiled without even realizing you were doing it. Your body relaxed. Your heart rate slowed down – or if it was a memory of an exciting moment, maybe your heart rate sped up, but it certainly wasn’t the result of stress. All of those physical changes happened because you were revisiting something that made you feel good.

The same thing happens in your brain when you take a walk down memory lane.

The Psychological Effects of Nostalgia

A study in Social Psychological and Personality Science looked at subjects in three different countries during the lockdowns of COVID-19 in 2021. The study found that a healthy dose of nostalgia helped ease the loneliness, depression, and anxiety that were so common during the pandemic.1

This echoes findings from a 2015 study by the University of Southampton, which found that the memory of happier times had a strong psychological effect, including feelings of warmth, affection, desire, and yearning.2 Both of these studies are promising for seniors and the elderly, many of whom suffer from loneliness and social isolation, as well as higher rates of depression and anxiety.

If you’re feeling depressed or anxious, it’s important to find ways to manage the problem. Talking to your doctor can help and finding a good counselor could help even more. Supporting your physical health can give you a boost as well, such as choosing a medical alarm to keep you safe. Sometimes medication might be a good idea. But there are also some natural ways to fight loneliness, depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues – and nostalgia is one of those ways.

From a Problem to a Solution

Did you know there was a time when nostalgia was actually considered a mental illness? The word itself suggests that nostalgia is a bad thing: it comes from the Greek word “nostos” which means “return home” and the Latin word “agia” which means “pain.” To put it plainly, nostalgia literally translates into feeling homesick.

Fortunately, nostalgia is now seen as a good thing – and that’s a relief for the 80% of people around the world who report feeling nostalgic at least once a week!3

The Benefits of Nostalgia for Seniors

Today, nostalgia’s wholesome memories can bring positive emotions that translate into higher self-esteem, strong social connections, empathy for others, better self-understanding, and optimism for what the future holds. Those good feelings decrease stress and increase the feel-good hormones in the body, all of which lead to better psychological and physical health.

Everyone feels nostalgia from time to time, but as you might imagine, it becomes more common among those who have more memories to pull from over the span of a long lifetime. Let’s break down why seniors should lean into nostalgia more often – and how to make the most of it.

Find Meaning in Your Experiences

During a difficult time, it can be tough to see where it will all lead and hard to believe it will ever get better. But when you look back on your life, you can recall challenging moments with a balance of the negative and positive, and the negative parts are seen with more compassion and forgiveness. That’s because you got through that rough patch and moved forward.

Nostalgia can allow you to look at those moments through the filter of experience. You can reflect on loss, grief, or substantial change and tell yourself, “I got through it! I made it. And here I am today.” This can give you a sense of accomplishment and purpose.

Find Deeper Love and Connection

When you think about your favorite memories, they likely involve other people. Sharing those memories with others in the here and now can boost the good feeling of nostalgia and make you feel more connected to those around you. Nostalgia helps you see your role in your family, your friend group, your community, your workplace, and anywhere else that you interact with others. It reminds you that you matter and that you make a difference in the lives of others, even if you don’t see or feel that way from day-to-day.

That realization can lead to even greater social connectedness. How? According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Consumer Research, nostalgia motivated individuals to help others, strengthen current relationships, and work to build new ones.4 Feeling nostalgic can lead to a desire to share positive feelings with others, which is why you might want to volunteer more often, join a senior community center, or reach out to friends and family you haven’t heard from in a while.

Find Hope for the Future

How does looking back to the past boost your hopes for the future? When you dive into nostalgic memories, you are reminded of how far you’ve come. There were points in your life that felt stressful, uncertain, or even hopeless. So if you face that same situation today, you can look back on the times when you felt less than hopeful and draw on them for strength right now.

This can come in handy for seniors who are facing medical challenges and have gotten through something similar in the past. Let’s say you have suffered a few falls and have chosen to use an alert for elderly adults with built-in fall detection. You know that having medical alert technology at your fingertips is literally a life-saver, and remembering past challenges you have faced and overcome helps people realize that they are strong and capable.

How to Dive Into Nostalgia

Memory is a funny thing. If you try to pinpoint a specific time and remember it on your own, it can be tough to do. But if you have a “trigger” that helps you get there, you could open the floodgates and remember things you haven’t thought of in decades. But what are those triggers?

Think about the things that you used to love. Was there a particular movie that mattered to you? Perhaps it was a movie that held special meaning because it was a first date with your spouse and you both loved the film. Thinking about that might make you smile. But actually watching the film today could bring a cascade of memories that focus on many aspects of your courtship and marriage, not just those few hours in the movie theater.

Seek out the music you listened to on road trips, the style of clothing you wore during your formative years, or family photographs that depict your now-adult children as little tykes. Tasting a long-lost family recipe can take you straight back to your childhood kitchen. Catching up with an old college roommate can spark memories of long-forgotten fun. Inviting your family to play an old board game can remind you of other times you played the same game, decades ago.

Going to visit your old haunts, like driving by your first home or exploring the place where you took your favorite vacation can make you feel like an entirely new you. Choose a few friends and family members, take your on-the-go button alert with GPS with you and take a road trip to the places that made you who you are.

Pick up old books you haven’t read in years, remember the rhymes that you learned in nursery school (or the ones you taught your kids), flip through magazines from years back, and watch documentaries or historical shows that remind you of when life was entirely different but just as great. Write your memories in a scrapbook for the grandkids. One day they will look back at what you wrote and maybe find a little nostalgia of their own.

Nostalgia can do amazing things for senior health. Embrace it!