LOS ANGELES — We old bats are terrified of Alzheimer’s or any other kind of dementia. We are getting to the age where many of our contemporaries have a disease of the mind. I know a well-known medium (someone who talks to the dead) who has some form of dementia. We don’t know if it is Alzheimer’s and won’t know until her death; but even though she talks to the dead, she can’t even recognize the people she lives with in her assisted living facility.
These are terrible diseases we think we know about, and that is why this week’s article in The Washington Post was quite a surprise. It talks about the joy of these diseases and getting older. Shocking, as I know most of us older people live in fear of dementia. As I like to put it, “When you get old, you don’t encode.”
How many of us old bats can’t remember things or people? According to a study done a few years ago, it is the disease we fear most. We fear dementia more than cancer.
One way people with dementia are being helped to experience joy is through art therapy. AARP reports:
The fledgling artist, who has dementia, is taking part in Memories in the Making, a national art program of the Alzheimer’s Association, sponsored by chapters across the country. The program helps people express their thoughts and emotions and share memories through painting, drawing and other creative projects.
“They may not seem to want to — or be able to — talk but can paint something that takes our breath away,” says Ruth Drew, director of family and information services for the Alzheimer’s Association. “In nurturing, calm, supportive settings, they sometimes have moments of clarity and express things that shock us all.”
These structured art programs help to give people with dementia “good moments, good hours and good days,” she says. “When people are engaged and supported, they probably sleep better, are less anxious, less depressed. The experience carries over to the rest of the day.” And, as Drew puts it, the goal is “happy humans.”
Another way to help Alzheimer’s patients is to use the Montessori Method. Yes, we think of it for younger children, but how about adults? According to their website, Montessori for Dementia “is a model of care, a new way to deliver care which requires us to change all we thought we knew about dementia and providing care for people living with dementia. Montessori for Dementia focuses on supporting both the person and the environment which is adapted to support memory loss and independence. We are unable to change the terrible effects of dementia, but by embracing Montessori principles and implementing environmental adaptions (including meaningful activities, roles and environmental cueing), we can circumvent dementia. The result is that people living with dementia are able to make meaningful contributions to their community, engage in meaningful activities in addition to having the opportunity to maintain, and even restore function. The approach is flexible, innovative and grounded in research.”
The Post article cites a study: “A 2016 pilot study in a Canadian nursing home found that dementia patients’ behavioral and psychological symptoms declined significantly and their quality-of-life scores improved significantly after 12 weeks of visits by ‘elder-clowns’ who engaged with them using humor, empathy and improvisation.” There is a website where older people can talk called “Dementia Diaries.”
There is even a tour with all kinds of fun information, called the ChangingAging tour. It features performances by Dr. Bill Thomas. Also known as the Age of Disruption Tour, it is a “nonfiction theater performance” that has played in over 80 cities. “People hear that a doctor is coming to town to talk about aging and they expect me to show up wearing a white coat with PowerPoint slides. I show up with a guitar, a bass player, a theater set, costumes, music, art, mythology, storytelling, biography, and neuroscience all mixed up. It’s kind of like a TED Talk on steroids,” Thomas says. He calls what they are doing as “Finish Strong.”
Dementia is not what it used to be. Caregivers are being shown that people still have creativity and humanity as part of their aging process. That is a great thing. We need to not see aging as the last hurrah that can’t involve some joy, laughter, and creativity. It can be a time where we shed old ideas and move onto new ones.