Dementia sufferers unlock memories

5:19 pm on 20 January 2016

A new programme is helping unlock memories and give more social connection to people suffering from dementia.

Listen to Annabel Grant on how to unlock memories in people with dementia

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Just over 53,500 people in New Zealand currently suffer from dementia, which causes the gradual loss of brain function, leading to confusion, memory loss, changes in personality, and - in the worst cases - leaving people unable to communicate and locked in a world of silence.

Now there are several new programmes and techniques to connect with dementia patients, with some exciting results.

Speech and language lecturer Annabel Grant from Massey University has been training students to use communication techniques designed specifically for people with dementia, that work by gently encouraging patients to share stories without the pressure of trying to remember things.

The ideas were developed in the US and include systems such as TimeSlips, Memory Books and creative storytelling to reach people affected by memory loss.

Family members often try to prompt memories in dementia sufferers, which doesn't help as the patient feels bad because they can't remember.

"They're doing it with love, they're not doing it on purpose, of course they want their family member to remember events or people," Ms Grant said.

TimeSlips is an intervention taken from the creative arts and was developed by Anne Basting, who had a drama background and had trouble communicating with patients she worked with in an aged care facility.

"She had this idea to try this technique... she gave everybody the same image or photo and just said 'let's make up a story' - so rather than saying 'what's the girl's name?', 'where is this happening?', she'd ask questions more like, 'what would you like to call her?' 'what would you like to say is happening to her?' in this image, so it really does remove the pressure and gives people the chance to use their imaginations."

Dementia patients in a housing complex in Hameln, Germany.

Some dementia patients in Germany Photo: AFP / Ole Spata / DPA

Ms Grant found TimeSlips worked well in groups in rest home situations where she'd walk into a shared lounge room and find patients sitting in their lounge chairs and just staring into space or at the television.

"You put some students in there, you recreate this TimeSlips storytelling and there's a buzz that comes in the room. Some of what the people suggest is obviously memories of their own, some of it's quite fanciful and it dawns on the students that these individuals still have a lot to give," Ms Grant said.

"And it's funny! Some of them burst into song, and it's a lot of fun for everybody."

TimeSlips' slogan is 'Forget Memory, Embrace Imagination'.

Memory Books is a kind of This Is Your Life using images.

"We'd put together a whole lot of images, and they tend to be people as they were growing up - maybe big, significant events like weddings and graduations, favourite holiday places. Pets often come up, and hobbies. So then it's like the person's life story is not lost, it's held somewhere."

Again, the technique is to comment rather than ask questions. Ms Grant used an example of a man who'd been in the Navy.

"So if you asked him, 'tell me about being in the Navy' or 'what was your job', you'd get very limited answers. But once he saw all those photos of him in his uniform or the different battleships and heard the comments and the talk, then he was able to join in and share his knowledge," Ms Grant said.

"So people feel... kind of perked up, and it reveals their competence, and what's still there."

Using these techniques, dementia sufferers can't be wrong, lose face or get embarassed by their failing memories, and they tend to reminisce.

And these programmes are not limited to rest homes. One example was a daughter who lived on the same property with her mother.

"And she was just a shining example of someone who was getting it right... she knows her mother's history and the stories of her mother's life so well, and just focusing on the positives - that was just beautiful... the daughter would just comment and talk about all the things that the mother had loved to do and all the family stories, and the mother would chime in. And it made the mother look like a competent person in the conversation... that's how it should be."