Taking a therapeutic approach at Elderwood

PROGRAM: Seasons Memory Care program helps people with dementia find balance.

WHEATFIELD – The elderly lady in the pink housedress smiles contentedly at the baby in her arms as she visits in the lounge of her nursing home.

“Sweet little girl,” she says.

“She likes you.”

“Well I call her sweet little girl, that’s why,” she chuckles. “You’re a good girl. Sweetheart. Precious, yes,” she croons to the baby. “Who does she belong to?”

“One of the nurses,” someone responds.

Her attention refocuses on the baby as she softly clucks and coos to it. “Sweetheart,” she repeats.

The exchange is not uncommon in a nursing home. But in this case, the woman in the housedress has later-stage dementia and is typically very withdrawn. Only when holding the “baby” — which is actually a therapy doll the size and weight of an infant — does she perk up and begin to interact with the doll and with those around her.

Therapy dolls have been used for years to help comfort and relax residents with memory impairments. Although it may look odd to see an elderly person treating a doll like a real baby, doll therapy has noticeable benefits for many dementia patients, according to Sandra Burrows. As Elderwood’s Director of Memory Care, Burrows, along with Dr. Elizabeth Laczi, regional director of memory care, oversees Elderwood’s Seasons Memory Care program and implements programs like doll therapy that benefit individuals with dementia.

Recently, Burrows and Dr. Laczi instituted a sensory balance program at several Elderwood communities, including Elderwood at Wheatfield.

“People with dementia perceive outside stimulation — light, sound, movement, touch — differently,” she said. “Their brains can’t filter multiple stimuli anymore and they become confused and overwhelmed.”

As their dementia progresses, and individuals become less able to communicate verbally, they may express their discomfort in other ways, such as withdrawing, wandering, becoming resistant to redirection or disruptive of others. These behaviors can be treated with prescription medication, but many care providers prefer solutions that don’t involve pharmaceuticals.

At Elderwood at Wheatfield, for instance, residents with dementia are evaluated by specially-trained therapy staff who observe how the person responds to different environments and sensory stimulation. Then, a detailed and individualized program is prescribed, down to the type of chair used, the position in which the resident sits and the objects given to soothe or stimulate the individual.

Sensory balance sessions are implemented by Elderwood’s activities staff in a specially-designed room set apart from the building’s common areas. The room features recliners and glider rockers, weighted blankets, baby dolls and visual changing lights. A video may play relaxing images of the seaside or a bubbling creek on the room’s large-screen TV and a diffuser may dispense the soothing scent of lavender. Room lighting can be raised or dimmed as needed.

An agitated person might sit in a gliding chair and calm themselves through the repetitious rocking motion, or relax in a recliner, covered by a weighted blanket to help calm their overacting sensory system. They might hold a life-sized, weighted baby doll or stroke a stuffed dog or cat. There are also therapies to help under-stimulated residents become more alert and encourage them to interact with other people and their environment.

Residents may graduate out of the program as their bodies learn a new routine of calmness.

“In a world as confusing as dementia, residents need a sense of home and a feeling of comfort and safety,” said Ms. Burrows. “We take a thorough look at what the resident needs and provide a program that makes sense in his or her confusing world.

“When we help a resident regain their emotional and physiological balance, we find the person again and create a positive environment through non-pharmacological means.”

“These programs can work to reduce disruptive behaviors and increase engagement and communication,” said Dr. Laczi, “creating a well-balanced relationship between the resident, the facility caregivers and the resident’s family.”