Author Archives: Colleen Davis

What’s So Funny about Dementia?

Caregivers run into problems all the time. Some are more devastating than others. You can cry and wring your hands. But sometimes, if you remind yourself,  you can also laugh. Finding the humor in stressful situations can provide a powerful way to cope with real challenges.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Go ahead and laugh — it’s therapeutic

A young Dutch researcher named J.H.E. Blom, created a project to help get caregivers to laugh more as a way of easing their emotional burdens.  Studies show that humor can have a positive effect on health and can promote happier feelings in tough situations. Blom looked for ways to help caregivers laugh more in daily life.

The concept made me recall a story I heard from a nurse who was interviewing caregivers. She said she had talked with a caregiver who faced a constant battle from her loved one whenever it was time to change the Depends. Somewhere along the way, the caregiver invented “The Diaper Dance”. She put the clean Depends on her head like a hat, and started dancing around until the her loved one started laughing and dancing too. Once the element of humor took over, all resistance dropped and that diaper got changed.

It’s easy enough to come up with funny ideas like this when you’re relaxed.  The problem is, we often forget to think of these things when we’re stressed. Blom’s solution is a concept called Amarant. Caregivers were asked to create tokens that reminded them of humorous moments.  They could be a funny cartoon from the newspaper or just an object that reminded them of a funny moment — like a photo of someone wearing a Depends hat?  In the study, people used markers and stickers to create pictures or reminders of things that made them laugh.

After they created their “tokens” of humor, they displayed them all around the house. Blom’s goal was to have the caregiver “subtly confronted” with the pictures so that they might trigger positive emotions connected to funny memories in situations that were not too funny. Caregivers also made “inspirational cards” that asked questions designed to produce memories of laughter. Cards asked caregivers to recall the last situation when they wanted to hold in their laughter but just couldn’t — or to remember accidentally making a joke. Caregivers wrote these recollections on their cards so they could use them to help produce a laugh during more stressful times.

It would not be too hard to try this experiment in your own home. Considering all the depressing research we see about drugs, side effects, and caregiver health problems, it’s refreshing to come across a study that promotes humor. Laughter is the world’s cheapest medicine, no one hold a patent on it, and it’s absolutely impossible to overdose.

Can Busy Hands Promote Better Minds?

Researchers in two different parts of the world — India and Finland — have been conducting studies to see if occupational therapy and hands-on hobbies improve quality of life for dementia patients. The group in India studied more male patients. The one in Finland studied women. Both found improved responses among patients who spent time engaged with different hands-on activities.

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Considering these two research projects together, it seems that it can be very beneficial to keep dementia patients busy with activities that involve both their minds and their hands. Here is a laymen’s explanation of this work.

The study in India was led by Prakash Kumar and his colleagues. They used a scale developed by the World Health Organization to complete a Quality of Life Assessment among dementia patients. Then they had a group of participants (80.5% male) engage in a structured program of activities that included:

  • Relaxation for 10 minutes which involved alternately tensing and releasing different group of muscles
  • Physical exercises for 10 minutes aimed at maintaining strength, mobility, circulation and general health
  • Personal activities for 15 minutes which included general care of nails, teeth and hair — and  household tasks such as arranging bed sheets, gardening and counting currency.
  •  Cognitive exercise for 20 minutes included reading,  solving picture puzzles, drawing, and clay color activity
  •  Recreational activity for 10 minutes such as viewing television, playing indoor games, table games, quizzes, Chinese checkers, telling stories, singing, and participating in organized social events.

The researchers wanted patients to do activities that stimulated their physical, functional, behavioral, psychological, and cognitive skills. After five weeks in the program — with two 70 minute sessions per week — patients showed significant improvement in physical performance, sleep quality, and energy for activities of daily living. The Quality of Life surveys also showed that patients had a greater appreciation of life and reduced negative feelings like anxiety and depression.

In the Finnish study, Sinikka Hannele Pöllänen and Reetta Marja Hirsimäki, conducted reminiscence sessions with older women in residential care who had severe symptoms of dementia. These same women enjoyed doing crafts as a leisure activity earlier in their lives. The researchers conducted three reminiscence sessions using different kinds of handicrafts to trigger memories and offer stimulation. Activities that combine several different senses (such as smell, touch, and taste) stimulated verbal reactions, better attention and nonverbal communication among the patients. In this group, the most interesting triggers also succeeded in stimulating the recall of forgotten, pleasing experiences related to doing crafts.

Both of these studies help to make the point that it’s important to try to keep loved ones involved in doing things that combine the work of hands and mind. This isn’t always easy — apathy may make them want to give up before they start. It’s also true that when one is busy cleaning the house, cooking, or doing other essential work, it’s hard to find time to organize an activity for someone with dementia. But if you can make the time, it may be worth the effort to get them involved in a hands-on project that stimulates them during the day, and promotes calmer evenings (and better sleep!) for all.