Alternative Therapies for Dementia
Dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, or any other form of progressive dementia, is always difficult, both for the persons afflicted and their caregivers. But there are therapeutic activities that can improve the quality of life for both sides of the relationship.
It’s important to understand what we mean by “therapy.” After all, currently Alzheimer’s is regarded as incurable. There are five FDA-approved medications designed to slow the progression and ease the symptoms of Alzheimer’s-related dementia, but they aren’t cures. And their effectiveness can vary from person to person.
Nevertheless, there are some simple activities caregivers can try to improve the quality of life for those dealing with progressive dementia, whether related to Alzheimer’s or not.
Guidance for Introducing Therapies to Alzheimer’s Patients
There are a few rules of thumb to follow when introducing any of these therapies:
Don’t confuse the disease with the person: Being an Alzheimer’s caregiver can be frustrating. Remember that the source of your frustration is the disease, not the afflicted person. If the person you are caring for doesn’t respond to one type of therapy, don’t take it personally—just try something else.
Focus on mood rather than accomplishment: The overriding goal of these therapies is to enhance the happiness and quality of life of the patient. Achieving other goals, like successfully learning a new task or skill, or completing an art project, are much less important. Enhancing the enjoyment and contentment of the person with dementia in the present moment is what is important.
Be observant and flexible: What is helpful for one person with dementia or Alzheimer’s may not be helpful for another person. Base any new therapies you introduce on what you know about the person. And gauge his or her reactions when you do introduce the therapy. If the reaction is negative, don’t get discouraged. It’s no one’s fault—again, just try something else. Similarly, persons with dementia may tire of a therapy or activity over time. This might be due to the progression of the disease, or one of any number of other reasons. Take note of these changes and adapt as necessary.
Baby Doll Therapy
One of the guidelines for interacting with persons with dementia is to avoid treating them like a child, no matter how tempting their childlike behavior may make it. Treating an adult that way is demeaning. So it’s definitely a paradox to suggest giving persons with Alzheimer’s dolls to play with, but that’s exactly what this therapy involves. And limited studies, along with anecdotal evidence, suggest it can be very helpful.
To be clear, we aren’t talking about dolls bought off the shelf at toy stores. The dolls used are specialized and made to seem as realistic as possible. The Alzheimer’s Store and Best Alzheimer’s Products are two online retailers who offer dolls made for this purpose.
Nor does baby doll therapy involve some artificially constructed “play” scenario. No one tells the subject what to do. Instead, the doll is introduced into the person’s environment, and he or she is allowed to discover it and interact with it at his or her own choosing. (Evidence seems to show that women respond more positively to doll therapy, but many men with Alzheimer’s or dementia take to it enthusiastically as well.)
What happens next can seem almost magical, according to observers. When a person with Alzheimer’s responds to this therapy, he or she can become absorbed in “caring” for the doll, holding it, rocking it, and cooing to it contentedly. It can provide a focus for hours of calm, soothing behavior. For caregivers looking for strategies to help brighten the day of a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, baby doll therapy may be an option worth trying.
One of the aims of various Alzheimer’s behavior therapies is to evoke memories from the subject’s past. Those afflicted with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia have trouble accessing recent memories. And there’s a suggestion that these short-term memory deficits can create feelings agitation or depression. But many of those with Alzheimer’s do have access to older memories, and music may be a way to help them get in touch with them. That’s part of what music therapy is about. There are also some indications it may increase cognitive function in those with Alzheimer’s.
Of course, the music played for folks with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia need not evoke specific memories to be effective. Any music that brings comfort and contentment is worthwhile. It just so happens that familiar music from the past is what seems to work best for that. Those with dementia may not have a conscious memory of this music, yet find it comforting all the same.
In some applications of music therapy, the subjects are encouraged to reminisce about memories the music brings up for them. In this way, they experience a sense of control over their memory that their dementia might otherwise take from them.
The Alzheimer’s Association offers tips for trying music therapy.
Art therapy is a hands-on technique to engage persons with Alzheimer’s or dementia in a diverting activity that may also create a sense of accomplishment and offer opportunities for self-expression.
Remember, however, that accomplishment is not the aim of the game. Making moments in the present more enjoyable and comfortable is the main goal. Still, art therapy may also help those with dementia regain lost motor skills and enable them to have more meaningful social engagement.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, art therapy is not recommended for those who were proficient artists before the onset of their dementia. The inability to create art in the same way or with the same competency as before may evoke feelings of sadness or frustration. But for those who were never particularly adept or even interested in creating art before, art therapy may prove to be a very pleasing activity that offers contentment and instills a sense of autonomy and control, feelings that patients with dementia may experience all too rarely.
Are you a caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s? Have you had success with any of these therapies? Please share in the comments.
Written by Rich Malley