Two studies from different continents show the benefits of group activities for people who have dementia.

Symptoms of depression lessened in senior living residents with dementia when they participated in either a high-intensity functional exercise program or a non-exercise group activity, according to a dissertation from a doctoral student at Umeå University in Sweden.

Gustaf Boström, a student in the university’s Department of Community Medicine and Rehabilitation, investigated whether 45 minutes of high-intensity exercise, every other weekday for four months, had a better effect on depressive symptoms than a seated group activity, performed with the same duration and frequency, in older people with dementia.

The exercise program included balance- and leg strengthening exercises that mimicked everyday movements — rising up from a chair, stepping up and down from a step board or walking on a path with obstacles. Participants in the seated group conversed, sang or listened to readings. He found no difference in effect between activities. Both had positive effects.

“Previous studies have shown that people with dementia at residential care facilities have few social interactions, which can negatively affect a person’s well-being,” Boström said. “The positive effects could, therefore, be the results of social interactions in these kinds of group activities. However, more research is needed to confirm this.”

‘They felt that they still belonged’

Another study, out of Vancouver, British Columbia, demonstrated the social benefits of group social and recreational activities among people with early-onset dementia.

The research, led by University of British Columbia nursing professor Alison Phinney, Ph.D., R.N. (pictured), focused on an independently run program known as Paul’s Club, which meets three days a week from a downtown hotel. Members range in age from mid 40s to late 60s.

Members of the club focus on having fun rather than spending a lot of time discussing their disease, and they meet in a hotel rather than a medical environment because of that fact. They gather from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to provide respite for family members. Each day starts with morning coffee and often is followed by chair yoga, a dance or other light workout before the group heads out for lunch and a walk in the neighborhood. Ice cream at a local gelato shop caps off the day.

The one constant every day is the group walk, during which time club members stop frequently to admire the scenery or talk to other people.

“By observing and talking to the members, we found that walking in the neighborhood and interacting with others kept them connected to the community,” said Phinney, a researcher with the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. “They felt that they still belonged — something that wouldn’t have been possible had they stayed at home.”

Phinney discusses her research below.