Scenario: The room is dark. The woman looks up at the large screen. Beside her, several other senior living residents focus their eyes on the screen. Like her, most of them are over the age of 75 and into their 80s and 90s. Some have become friends. Others, she just hangs out with in the common areas. If she has any issues with memory, she may not recognize or acknowledge them at all.
She watches the screen as the story unfolds. It might have been her story. It triggers a memory she had as a young girl, in a visit to her grandmother.
Many of the people she knew and loved, family and friends, have passed on. Sadly, remaining family members visit less often. She is lost to the busyness of life, or perhaps to the maze we call Alzheimer’s.
She watches as the young girl, who conjures memories of her younger self, enters a shed in the garden. In a large, padded basket, a new litter of kittens tumbles around the mother cat. The woman can almost feel the soft fur as the girl gently picks up one tiny gray bundle and strokes its head. The woman is present in the moment.
Is she stressed? Perhaps. Are there strains in her family dynamic? Possibly. If memory channels are blocked, issues become compounded.
Memory care is high on the list of therapies used in senior living communities to rekindle the past. Can a series of 3D movies help bring residents back and give them some joy? Can it counteract the isolation and loneliness so many elderly residents experience? Can it bring them back into the community?
The young girl places the kitten back with its mother and returns to the kitchen. Grandma is kneading dough on the counter. She’s making ginger snap cookies. For a moment, she leaves the kneading and takes a small apron and ties it around the girl. The girl takes a heart-shaped cookie cutter and stamps out individual cookies.
Today’s older adults are part of a cohort whose numbers are increasing exponentially, a phenomenon known in senior living communities everywhere. For owners, managers and caregivers, the ongoing challenge is to figure out how to provide these residents with the quality of life they deserve, and at an affordable cost.
That was how it was, wasn’t it? Grandma made those wonderful cookies and the family loved them. And the girl shared them with friends.
Quality of life cuts both ways. Caregivers are entitled to expect quality of life in their daily interactions with this aging cohort. Many love their work. For others, it’s simply a job. Regardless, they deserve support to make sure that their work is productive and rewarding, and as stress free as possible, remembering that caring for some residents can be very difficult and time-consuming.
The images on the screen quietly fade away. There is silence. And then the response…
The woman is not the only one whose memories are triggered. Reactions are different. Some residents cry, some laugh, some get angry. Some who have hardly spoken in a long, long time may speak. Even someone with dementia thought unlikely to communicate ever again seems accessible.
What do the staff members discover? Understanding. Connection. A possibility that they can take better care of this resident. They have learned more about her and how to meet her needs. Or that the resident needed something that their family was unaware of — simply to be told she was loved.
Clinical studies on the effectiveness of these 3-D presentations are underway at senior living communities and long-term care facilities in the United States and Canada. Preliminary results suggest that exposure to these movies, which also are available in virtual reality, not only allows residents to feel happier and less isolated, but makes the task of caregivers less stressful, more productive and more rewarding.
Feedback suggests that those who attended the screening described here still talk about it in the weeks and months that follow. The story opened them up. It allowed them to communicate with others – collectively. And that’s part of the possibility.
However successful one-on-one memory therapies may be, these 3-D movies operate at scale. They affect more people at the same time. They help create community.
What are these stories? They are stories about life. They are designed to ignite memories, in turn enhancing connection and communication and improving quality of life for all concerned. That’s the promise – when promise is so limited for thousands of older adults about to arrive in the nation’s senior living and long-term care facilities, anxious and lonely. This is an effort to build a community that works, with no one left out.