Furnishings and technology help dementia patients connect with loved ones.
Subject: Nursing home patients (Family)
Nursing home patients (Care and treatment)
Mentally ill aged (Family)
Mentally ill aged (Care and treatment)
Nursing home care (Technology application)
Nursing home care (Equipment and supplies)
Pub Date: 09/22/2010
Publication: Name: Human Ecology Publisher: Cornell University, Human Ecology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Science and technology; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Cornell University, Human Ecology ISSN: 1530-7069
Issue: Date: Fall, 2010 Source Volume: 38 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 440 Facilities & equipment Computer Subject: Technology application
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 266957296
Full Text: Frustrated by their inability to communicate with their parents with dementia, two Human Ecology faculty members are using custom-built furniture and digital photos to help families connect with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer's and other brain diseases.

With a team of 10 students, Paul Eshelman and Franklin Becker, professors of design and environmental analysis (DEA), constructed a "conversation corner"--a padded, high-backed bench--to help nursing home residents and their families block out distractions during visits. They also designed a portable, wood-finished stand on which dementia patients can view digital pictures that evoke happy memories. The research team then taught family members how to interact "in the moment" and overcome communication lapses associated with short-term memory loss.

In initial studies of the Family Visit Program over the past three years, supported by $75,000 in federal Hatch funds, Eshelman and Becker have seen largely positive responses from 10 residents, 13 family members, and nine workers at two Ithaca nursing homes.

"We know from existing research and personal experience that visiting loved ones with Alzheimer's disease, dementia, or other short-term memory loss can be an emotional minefield," said Becker, who first tried the program with his mother. "This stress can cut short visits or even discourage people from coming at all. But we also know that family visits have great therapeutic value for dementia patients, so we're trying to create the conditions for more rewarding visits for everyone involved."

Eshelman said the program is unique in that it uses design and physical setting to try to ease family-resident interactions. The conversation corner and photo stand have been installed in large, communal areas of nursing homes, locations where dementia patients would normally be sidetracked by nearby activity. But the intimate space helps to focus attention on the photos, and visitors can control the flow of images with a remote control, an advantage over scrapbooks, which can be bulky and have pictures scattered across many pages.

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"Several times I have seen tender moments between family members and residents--an elderly couple with their arms around each other, a granddaughter nuzzling up to her grandmother--that were brought about because of the design of the space," Eshelman said.

The study team is seeking additional funding from research foundations or private investors to continue usability studies in local nursing homes to further refine their prototype and build on graduate theses by DEA students Sarah Blau '07, M.A. '09, and Hannah Kim '09, M.A. '10. Already, participant feedback has led them to scale back a large canopy that hung above the conversation corner because it intimidated residents.

Eshelman knows the pain of caring for loved ones with dementia from his regular visits to his late parents at a nursing home in northeast Ohio and is driven to ease the burden on families.

"Dementia didn't erase my mother, I just had to work harder to get to the essence of her," he said. "Even right up to the end, she was able to make emotional connections with me. My challenge is to create a design that makes it easier to call up those kinds of moments."
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