Many people think it’s normal to develop dementia as you age. In truth, dementia is a disease that is more common in the very elderly, but can also affect younger people.
The good news, though, is that there are new, innovative ways to treat and manage dementia and memory loss, with results that hugely improve quality of life.
As a diversional therapist at Freedom Aged Care, Jan Bell spends most of her time caring for elderly residents with dementia.
“It can happen really, really quickly,” Bell says of the disease’s progression. “And sometimes it can take a lot of time and it might be years before you see some sort of progression.”
While there’s currently no way to cure someone of dementia, there are ways to manage and treat the symptoms so its progression is not as aggressive and life can continue as normally as possible.
Freedom has dedicated dementia therapy sanctuaries within its communities, that are run by diversional therapists such as Bell, with community volunteers providing extra assistance. There, residents with cognitive decline can do activities that help nurture their memory and manage some of the more worrying symptoms of dementia, such as the tendency to wander.
According to Bell, one of the most important parts of dementia care involves allowing residents to interact as they see fit; some residents “just want to sit there and have a pot of tea and a chat”.
She says the jobs and pastimes familiar from their earlier lives often dictate what residents enjoy doing at the therapy sanctuaries. For those who used to enjoy cooking, simple activities such as stirring batter or beating eggs can come naturally and be therapeutic, even if the resident can no longer complete a recipe without help, she explains.
“You don’t want to set up a dementia resident for failure,” Bell says. “They’re losing everything they’ve ever gained.”
Music therapy is also a great way for residents to reminisce about happy times from their past, as well as providing comfort if they are feeling anxious. Bell often sets up her residents with an iPod and headphones, allowing them to listen to songs from their childhood and sing along at their leisure.
Sometimes, though, therapeutic activities require the great outdoors.
Bell tells of residents visiting with a horse that had previously been used for movie stunt work. Patting and feeding the docile animal helped those with a farming background to feel connected to their country roots and recall positive memories.
Studies have shown that interaction with an animal can be beneficial for dementia patients, but caring for a live animal can sometimes be taxing. Instead, one of the newest dementia therapy methods, adopted by Freedom 18 months ago, is an animatronic seal, or carebot, named Francis.
Bell says dementia residents can often become restless and agitated in the afternoon, and that’s when the calming presence of Francis works best.
Francis moves, makes noises and can even respond to the sound of his name. Caring for and cuddling Francis gives residents the same benefits of bonding with a real pet – without having to respond to an animal’s very real needs.
Bell hopes that further technological advancements will allow for a few more carebots in various shapes and sizes to be welcomed by residents.
Do you believe in the healing power of pets? If you had a family member with dementia, would you like them to have access to a carebot?