Oklahoma nursing homes try scented oils, paint and massages for people with dementia
Oklahoma City — While she painted snowflakes deep blue and red-orange, Pat Heyland shared tales of her travels with her husband, her brother's service in World War II and how her mother-in-law was deputized during her time as a small-town postmistress.
Though she was focused on keeping the colors within the lines, a playful spirit emerged. When a staff member asked what her daughter had studied in college, Heyland quipped, “Boys.”
It was a welcome change to see her so outgoing, said Debi Sims, manager of the memory care unit at Touchmark at Coffee Creek in Edmond. Heyland had taken to isolating herself in her room, which isn't uncommon for people with dementia. The painting program acts as a kind of therapy for some people, particularly when mixed with conversation and scents that can either stimulate or calm a person, Sims said.
“Some of our residents who are very anxious, when they're painting ... it helps to relax them,” she said.
Dementia is an umbrella term for damage to the brain that interferes with a person's ability to think and go about daily activities. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form. The best-known symptoms are forgetfulness and confusion, but some people also experience depression or anxiety, and may lash out or withdraw as the world becomes incomprehensible.
Traditionally, nursing facilities have turned to medications meant for people with severe mental illnesses to keep their residents' behaviors in check, even though the drugs can cause deadly side effects in older people. Now, some facilities are trying simple strategies like aromatherapy, painting and hand massages to improve residents' moods.
Increasing calm and comfort
Some small studies have found aromatherapy and massage appeared to calm patients with dementia, and a few suggested that patients' cognitive scores improved after therapy — though not nearly enough to alter the course of the disease. So far, the research isn't strong enough to say conclusively that patients benefit from the therapies, but they also aren't likely to experience side effects that would call for caution.
Jennifer Robinson, who works for Lifetime Wellness at multiple Oklahoma nursing homes, said one of their successes is a program called Comfort and Life Memories (CALM). The program includes relaxing music or nature sounds, flameless candles, aromatherapy and hand massages for those who want them. Most residents, including those without dementia, participate once or twice a week, though some people with agitation need it more often, she said.
Residents are more likely to make eye contact and talk about their lives after participating in the program, said Alicia Connor Todd, clinical liaison and director of marketing at Tulsa Nursing Center and Villages at Southern Hills Skilled, and Assisted Living Villages at Southern Hills. They also tend to have better appetites, sleep more soundly and report less pain, she said.
“The best way to overcome aging and illness and pain is to replace all of those negative stimuli with positive stimuli,” she said. “It won't make it go away, but it can make it better.”
The idea is to use the program with other therapies like gentle exercise, dance, social activities, crafts and religious activities to meet the range of residents' physical and emotional needs, Robinson said.
“We want to keep them at their highest level of functioning possible,” she said. “We try to well-round the person so it's not all about bingo.”
Having a variety of activities is important because people have different interests, and they vary in what memories and abilities they retain longest as their diseases progress, Sims said. The most important thing is to make them feel comfortable, she said.
Painting “is just another tool that we have,” she said. “Some tools work for some people with dementia, and some don't.”