A Brief History
In the 1950s, psychology, psychiatry, and gerontology textbooks often devalued reminiscence and memories. Reminiscing was thought to be an early diagnostic sign of senile psychosis—what is known today as Alzheimer's disease—and people who engaged in reminiscence were thought to be living in the past, even considered "boring" and garrulous."
In 1955–1956 the National Institute of Mental Health conducted studies for the first time on healthy older persons. The importance of reminiscence was demonstrated. In 1961, Robert N. Butler postulated the universal occurrence in older persons of an inner experience or mental process he called the life review. He proposed that life review helps account for the increased reminiscence in the aged. Today, life review is acknowledged to be a way of maintaining cognitive vitality.
Life review as psychotherapy. The life review and similar autobiographical concepts have been suggested as psychotherapeutic techniques. These methods include the Martin Method, originated by Lillian Martin, in which the client is asked to relate life history in detail; life review therapy, promulgated by Myrna I. Lewis and Butler; guided autobiography, described by James E. Birren; and reminiscence and structured life review therapy, described by Irene Burnside, Barbara Haight, and others.
In the 1970s, psychiatrists began to move away from psychodynamics and the inner life, and toward the use of psychoactive medications to ease the emotional burden many people feel as they near the end of life.
These therapies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Medications that ease anxiety and make pain tolerable can be used in conjunction with therapeutic life review to help patients achieve reconciliation and gentle closure.