Dementia patients aren’t empty shells, but lifelong learners

Jul 04, 2023
New study debunks common misconception about dementia patients and their learning abilities. Source: Unsplash

A groundbreaking study is challenging the narrative surrounding dementia by debunking the long-held assumptions about the cognitive limitations brought on by the disease and proving that patients still have the ability to learn.

The study, conducted by researcher Elias Ingerbrand from Linkoping University in Sweden, involved 10 dementia patients, 8 of whom were aged care residents, all diagnosed with various stages of dementia who had never used a computer tablet.

Ingerbrand gave each participant a tablet, and with the support of a staff member or a loved one, were given a simple instruction to use the tablet as they pleased.

To Ingerbrand’s surprise, the devices sparked the dementia patient’s curiosity.

“I was rather surprised at this. I may have expected that it would just lie there and that they would talk about something else, but we saw that they focused their attention on it,” he said.

Through the 6 week study, Ingerbrand noticed that despite grappling with severe memory decline, the participants gradually became more proficient in using the tablet independently.

According to Ingebrand, this progression could be attributed to the body’s ability to recall the necessary movements, even when verbal expression was limited.

One woman, a former orienteerer, had started using her tablet to check competition results. Another man, who was known for his restlessness and aggressive behaviour, started to calm down after learning to navigate the Swedish public television broadcaster.

Ingerbrand’s study shows that when dementia patients’ interests are piqued, they are able to learn new things even without any particular set of instructions.

“My thesis has an impact on how we look at people with dementia,” he said.

“They are not to be treated as children, but as people who still have a will and an incentive to do things. This is ultimately about having the opportunity to participate in meaningful activities based on the person’s own interests and desires.”

The findings present a possible solution for aged care facility staff who may be too busy to sit down with one person for long periods of time.

Though this study used tablets, Ingerbrand believes the results will extend to other forms of learning.

“I want to take my research further by finding out how to make use of the knowledge and expertise of people with dementia in creating meaningful activities,” he explained.

“Maybe someone could initiate an activity and teach others in the care facility. Perhaps a small seminar, or knitting.

“The right to lifelong learning should include everyone; the important thing is getting a chance to learn.”

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