A newly published doctoral thesis challenges the perceptions many have about the abilities of dementia patients to learn new skills. The research done by Elias Ingebrand, from Sweden’s Linköping University, used computer tablets to demonstrate these abilities. The thesis could help reframe the way many of us think about dementia support.
The publication of Dr Ingebrand’s thesis coincides with the release of a new ad getting regular television airplay. The ad, focusing on a dementia sufferer and her close family members, can be viewed at Dementia Support Australia’s YouTube channel.
As one might expect from such delicate subject matter, I found the ad moving, and also confronting. It highlights the anger, frustration and sadness experienced by the sufferer and their loved ones.
It’s a timely reminder for those who have a loved one with dementia that support is available. Dr Ingebrand’s research opens up the possibility of providing that support in far more meaningful ways than might be expected.
A different approach to dementia support
Much of past and current research into dementia support has focused on helping patients regain the skills they once had. That approach seems logical, given the aim of dementia support is to restore sufferers’ independence where possible.
Dr Ingebrand’s research comes from another angle, asking if dementia sufferers might still be able to forge new neural pathways. And the signs are positive.
The starting point for Dr Ingebrand’s research was to provide computer tablets to 10 people with various forms of dementia. Eight of the 10 lived in care facilities, and none of them had ever used a tablet.
Rather than being given specific instructions, participants were simply told to use the tablet in any way they liked. Recording their interactions with the tablet on video, Dr Ingebrand found that participants soon became curious about the device. This was not something he anticipated.
“I was rather surprised at this,” he said. “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.”
Two of the participants, with some support from staff or a family member, provided stark examples of this. The first, a female participant who previously enjoyed orienteering, spontaneously used the tablet to check competition results.
The second example, perhaps, provides even more reason to optimistic about such an approach to dementia support. That case involved a man whose dementia had led to him becoming regularly aggressive and restless. After learning to navigate to the Open Archive of SVT (Sweden’s national broadcaster) he would sit and watch programs calmly.
Dr Ingebrand’s research could be groundbreaking, although he acknowledges that it may require significant one-on-one support. For sufferers in a care facility, that could be a challenge.
Nevertheless, this novel collaborative approach merits consideration, and Dr Ingebrand thinks it could be expanded beyond using computer tablets.
“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,” said Dr Ingebrand. “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.”
That certainly provides plenty of food for thought for those looking to provide meaningful dementia support.
Do you have a dementia sufferer in your life? How have you approached providing dementia support for them? Let us know in the comments section below.
Also read: Early onset diabetes linked to dementia
Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.