Sensory Reminiscence

Entertainer and activities coordinator Jimmy O Donnell talks about his unique activities sessions, which focus on sensory experiences, and recalls the extra efforts he makes to really connect with his audience…

“Eyes open wider and smiles appear when a familiar image or photograph from the past is seen. Ears hear and voices awaken and enthusiastically join in, when an old song is played. A smell from childhood, a taste that recalls granny’s table or the opportunity to touch an old object, all of these are capable of awakening the veritable ‘palace of memories’ that is the mind and heart.

My work across Lancashire and beyond is my daily joy, supporting people including many who are living with dementia, through precious moments of reminiscence and clarity. I use my vast collection of old objects, music and song, images and video-clips, a gramophone, conversations and relationships, to encourage those precious memories that can mean so much.

We need to be confident and imaginative in our efforts to develop ideas and resources that make a difference. Often one idea is a springboard for other ways of engaging and interacting. For me, variety is the key. My sensory reminiscence sessions always cover things we can see, smell, hear, taste and touch.

Charlie tries out the old washing (scrubbing) board

When a lady from South Africa suggested that I could not help her as she as from so far away, I said that it is as easy to find memories from Pretoria as it is from Preston! On my next visit, her face was an absolute picture as she enjoyed photos of her old school, town and the spectacularly colourful Jacaranda Festival that she remembered so fondly from childhood.

Touching: Who would have thought that the sight of an old Green Shield stamp book could arouse and evoke precious memories? Clutching it to her heart, one woman recalled her sister being born and mum sending her to the shop laden with stamps to swap for a plastic baby bath. As her baby sister died in her 30s, the significance became even more poignant. Memories lead to memories and open so many doors into the mind and heart.

The late, great Jimmy Armfield (Blackpool FC & England) with an old ARP rattle

: We begin to hear in our mother’s womb, the synchronicity of our heartbeat alongside hers. Songs and music, poems and rhymes, can stay with us for a lifetime. In every session, I am in awe of the power of the mind to find words and tunes, often not sung since childhood days. Building up our own repertoire is vital, going far beyond the old faithful tunes to the rich variety which is often just below the surface and which can bring such joy and positivity. Only last week, I played ‘My Foolish Heart’ for a couple in a care home for whom the title song from the film they saw on their first date in 1949 held such precious significance. As he tried to rouse his beloved wife from sleep to hear it, tears were rolling down his cheeks. The song meant so much to him because of his unconditional and everlasting love for her. She died two days later and we were able to believe that their precious love song was amongst the last things that she heard. Find those deeply significant songs and tunes with people. Even a half-remembered lyric can easily become a full song with a simple Google search.

Smelling: Be creative. When Bridget bemoaned that she would never smell a Donegal turf fire again, I offered her hope. All I needed was a bit of turf brought over from my family’s Donegal bog, a match and a glass bottle. As Bridget smelt the hugely evocative smoke, she squealed with delight and memories came gushing forth. Playing a video of a burning turf fire ( helped to maximise the experience.

Tasting: I enjoy asking people in care settings: “Would anybody like some tripe? I have some in my case. Don’t worry, it’s authentic. I’ve kept it since 1957!” Perhaps it was the 15 years of rationing and the culture of ‘you’ll eat what’s in front of you or someone else will’, that means that any discussion of food and mealtimes evokes dynamic conversation. Photos are an adequate substitute for the real thing, health and hygiene being an issue. But they still sell cow heel, pigs trotters, tripe and the like, on many a Lancashire market stall – and this is what really gets people talking.”

Jimmy O’Donnell,

Jimmy with some of his memorabilia collection.