Last week we explored how poor “sleep ability” can lead to a host of health problems, from joint pain and asthma to heart disease and even dementia. Beyond the technology available to help people breathe better at night and obtain a deep, uninterrupted night’s sleep, one surprisingly low-tech solution also benefits seniors on many levels: singing. But it’s not the only dementia breakthrough available today.
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Prescribing Virtual Reality
Virtual reality is hot, though it hasn’t typically been associated with elder health. Until now. The Canadian-based Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation (CABHI) reports that in a feasibility study, seniors with dementia benefited from wearing VR headsets. Not only did they enjoy the simulated natural environments, says lead researcher Lora Appel, PhD, but being in “nature” appears to elicit conversations around memory, because the headset users relate what they’re seeing to personal experience.
VR has application as a caregiving tool as well. It can help those caring for dementia patients at home manage agitation and aggression. And one hospital, in collaboration with CABHI, designed a tailored VR program to both educate caregivers and boost empathy for those with Alzheimer’s.
While VR is still in the early stages as a dementia resource, technology expert Terry Myers is a strong advocate for the medium, noting that VR is “incredibly powerful…beyond anything we’ve been able to use to talk to people, share stories and create feelings. I think healthcare is a natural fit for it.”
The Memory Code
Nobody wants to watch a loved one spiral into dementia — especially not a grandchild who happens to be a technology wizard. So fourteen-year-old Emma Yang decided to develop a tool to help her grandmother remember.
She saw how AI and facial recognition software were particularly applicable in healthcare, taught herself to code for the iPhone (just another weekend afternoon…) and developed the mobile app, Timeless.
“Timeless” tells Alzheimer’s patients who they’re looking at as they scroll through photos of family and friends, and how they’re related to that person. It also includes a simple appointment reminder, and, if someone keeps calling the same contact, gently reminds the user they just called that number a few minutes ago.
Will someone with dementia be able to master the app? UCSF Memory and Aging Center associate professor Katherine Possin opines that for seniors with only mild cognitive impairment, “with support from their caregiver, it’s possible that if the app is simple enough they can learn to use it through repetition and practice.”
One of the more obvious yet underutilized ways to help people with dementia is to embrace them — something Japan, with one of the world’s highest life expectancies, is pioneering. With one in five elderly Japanese predicted to have dementia by 2025, entire communities are working to improve the lives of older citizens.
Faced with spiraling healthcare costs and a shortage of professional caregivers, Japanese towns are moving from an institutional focus to a community-based approach, including more government-supported home visits and support for family caregivers.
In Matsudo, for example, which may be home to 26,000 seniors with dementia in the next decade, the health and welfare plan includes raising public awareness among residents as well as businesses, such as banks and taxi services, which regularly come into contact with older people. There are cafés and drop-in centers for dementia patients and their families.
In return for attending a 90-minute educational presentation, residents can become “dementia supporters” who participate in neighborhood patrols. Several times a month, small groups of volunteers don bright orange bibs and walk around distributing leaflets about dementia services — and sometimes, these patrollers see wandering or confused individuals and are able to guide them safely home.
Japan may be on to something — and their respect for elders could actually help reduce the risks of dementia overall.
New research from Yale University supports the idea that “cultural constructs around how people perceive age contribute to the development of dementia. People who associate old age with uselessness or senility are more likely to develop dementia than people who associate it with positive attributes, such as wisdom and respect.”
Perception certainly affects longevity. The Japanese have the world’s second longest life spans; the U.S., among the planet’s wealthiest nations, ranks 43rd.
Collectively, we’re starting to make inroads. In the UK, a woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease was not only allowed to keep her retail job, she was also offered regular retraining and support to ensure she could continue to do the work. She ended up working at the company another five years, feeling valued and appreciated, for which both she and her son are profoundly grateful.