Engagement: A Vital Element of Well-Being While Living with Dementia

By February 26, 2015Dementia

By Karen Love

I spoke on the phone recently with a gentleman in Florida who is living with advanced early stage dementia. I was struck by the high level of excitement and joy in his voice as he explained what he was doing (dementia advocacy work). I asked him how he might feel if he wasn’t doing this engaging work. He was silent as he considered my question – then responded that he likely would be depressed.

His response was no surprise because part of human nature is to seek out meaningful activity. Prisoners of war, for example, describe some amazing things they did to relieve the boredom of inactivity such as writing books in their heads and doing hundreds of sit-ups. Research is slowly making its way to providing the science and evidence base of what many have known for decades – being engaged in meaningful activity improves how we feel.

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley is studying the science of meaningful life. Another research center conducting work in this area, the National Institute for Play, was founded by psychiatrist Stuart Brown, MD. Dr. Brown’s research found that ‘play’ renews emotional energy. Doing something enjoyable for just a short amount of time leaves an individual feeling upbeat and happy.

“Play is what lifts people out of the mundane. Play can be compared to oxygen – it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.”
–       Stuart Brown, MD

When people have cognitive impairments such as those experienced with dementia, they lose the ability to themselves initiate ‘play’ and find meaningful and interesting things to do. If others don’t engage them in meaningful and enjoyable things to do each day, feelings of frustration and depression are likely to emerge. Jiska Cohen-Mansfield, PhD and colleagues in Maryland are international pioneers in studying the value and benefits of meaningful activity for people who are living with dementia. Individuals with dementia who are unoccupied, isolated, or bored often exhibit behaviors such as distress, agitation, frustration, depression, restlessness, irritability and aggression. For a small percent of individuals, these behaviors are rooted in psychiatric causes. For the majority of people, these behaviors are a result of boredom and a lack of meaningful activity.

I’ve been in the field of dementia care for over thirty years, and worked with hundreds of people living with dementia. About 15 years into my career my father developed Alzheimer’s, so I have some personal family familiarity with it also. I’ve experienced first-hand the direct impact of meaningful engagement and happiness. For most people, short periods of an enjoyable activity or social interaction are plenty. Other people need more sustained activity and engagement. I think of my friend’s brother-in-law who runs five miles each morning, works a demanding job, then comes home and kayaks around the lake near where they live for an hour. Should he develop dementia, he’ll likely be one of those people who need sustained activity!

We created FIT Kits™ to make engaging someone living with dementia simple, easy and fun. Helping family members and other care partners experience the difference simple engagement can make in bettering the lives of people with dementia is one of the joys in my life.

Brown, S., and Vaughan, C. (2010). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Penguin Group, New York, New York.
Cohen-Mansfield, et al. (2010). Can persons with dementia be engaged with stimuli? American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 18(4):351-62.

Image Credit – http://www.meals-on-wheels.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/bigstock-Group-Of-Mature-People-Playing-4732264.jpg

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