How beneficial are non-pharmaceutical therapies for someone with dementia?
There are currently 820,000 people living with dementia in the UK and without a medical breakthrough this is anticipated to rise to over one million by 2021. With an increasing number of people living with the disease, the use of complementary and alternative therapies is becoming more conventional, but in which ways are these non-pharmaceutical therapies beneficial for someone living with dementia? Hannah West investigates.
Non-pharmaceutical therapies, also known as psychosocial interventions which help to treat or prevent health conditions through cognitive, educational and behavioral approaches, are becoming increasingly more popular amongst people living with dementia. A study conducted by the Alzheimer’s Society found that at least one in four people living with dementia in England have used complementary or alternative therapies in the past year, and this attractiveness is thought to be due to the perceived natural benefits they bring to one’s happiness and well-being.
Therapeutic approaches to treatment provide a non-invasive way of helping to treat dementia without the fear of negative medical side-effects. In a report by the Alzheimer’s Association, they found that “medication induced dementia was the most common cause of misdiagnosed or ‘reversible’ dementia”, so it comes as no surprise that people are becoming more open to giving more natural and perceived safe options a chance.
Therapeutic approaches can be used either complimentary alongside medication or in rare occasions they are used as an alternative therapy altogether. There are a wide range of therapies being practiced today, from emotion-oriented interventions such as reminiscence and validation therapy, which aim to improve cognitive function and mental health, to stimulation-oriented treatments such as music therapy and recreational activities, which also seek to improve cognitive function as well as behavior and mood.
Ian Weatherhead is the lead Admiral Nurse for Dementia UK and believes therapies which stimulate the brain are extremely advantageous for someone living with dementia. ‘’We are seeing much more development into therapeutic approaches which are about stimulating the brain in a way medication can’t. From research we can see that therapies which stimulate different parts of the brain allow people with cognitive decline to maintain certain skills that they would probably otherwise lose.’’
However, Patricia McParland, Project Manager from Bournemouth University Dementia Institute feels that like with most things in life, the benefits associated with complementary and alternative treatments cannot be generalised for everyone. ‘’There are a whole range of new ideas and therapies being trialed today and I absolutely think they are all worth exploring. However, a therapy that improves the happiness and attentiveness of one person living with dementia also has the potential to frustrate and confuse another. This is why research into these modern day therapies as treatments is so important.’’
Therapies which stimulate different parts of the brain allow people with cognitive decline to maintain skills that they would probably otherwise lose.
Socialisation is essential for people living with dementia as they can often feel alone and withdrawn. According to a study which appears in the Journal of Neurology (2012), those who suffer from loneliness have 64% greater risk of dementia, and the progression of decline in those already living with the disease is likely to be more detrimental without a supportive social network.
Public therapeutic workshops often run by charities have proved themselves as a great way to promote socialisation between like-minded people, and are particularly popular amongst those living at home with dementia. Twenty-five-year-old Rob Perry is the full time carer of his 54-year-old mother who lives with a rare form of dementia called pick disease. Now completely mute, Rob believes that attending organised community groups that practice non-pharmaceutical approaches to care play a significant role in his mum’s happiness. ‘’Mum really comes alive when she attends the social groups, especially when she listens to music; it’s the biggest thing she responds to. Her mood completely changes through the art of music therapy, much more than it has ever done with medication she’s been prescribed. It’s really incredible to see”.
Music therapy is powerful; it has the ability to evoke memories of past times through reminiscence as it has a close relationship with unconscious emotions, which can be brought to life through music and movement. (Click here -to watch a video of music therapy in action). This form of stimulation-oriented treatment is also popular amongst dementia care homes that provide regular activities for their residents. Julie Thorne, who is the manager of a care home in Dorset, believes any therapy which awakens memories and promotes conversation has a positive effect on people living with the disease.
‘’From my experience, residents like anything which practices reminiscence therapy. It lifts their spirits and memory boxes are a great example of this. Someone with dementia might not be able to remember what they had for lunch today but they can damn right remember how much a box of soap flakes cost them in 1942 when they see the old packaging.” Aside from the contentment these therapies can bring to people with dementia, Julie also believes they can play an important role in empowering someone. “Sometimes I come across an item in a resident’s memory box which I’ve never seen before, and they take great pride in teaching me about it. That’s great for them because they feel intellectually useful which can often change their outlook on life.” (Click here-To watch a memory box tutorial).
Mum really comes alive when she attends the social groups, especially when she listens to music; it’s the biggest thing she responds to.
Surprisingly, there is still very little reliable research into the treatment of dementia solely through the use of complementary and alternative therapies, and this is thought to be because no two people’s dementia is the same, making it impossible to generalise results. Despite this, Ian Weatherhead predicts that we are going to see many more of these non-pharmaceutical approaches to treatment coming to light, which he appreciates as a positive thing for the future. ‘’For a lot of people, finding out they have dementia is a life sentence, but it really doesn’t have to be. As of yet there is no cure for dementia but I think the power these therapies have over customary treatments to spread happiness and positivity over people can only be a good thing, for not only those currently living with dementia but also everyone else who in this modern day are vulnerable to it.”
To learn more about Bournemouth University Dementia Institute’s current research into dementia click on the icon below and listen to our podcast.
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