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UK Organisations use Original Techniques to try Unlock Dementia Patients’ Memories

Posted on Oct 08, 2013 by Ruth Loftus

Published medical literature about progressive dementia treatments often focus on using a combination of medicines to temporarily reduce the symptoms. But for patients with middle and late stages of dementia - and for elderly patients in particular - using medicine can sometimes complicate the condition. On the other hand, the NHS guide to dementia recognises the value of “care and support” as well as treatments for dementia which help patients to “maintain memory, independence and function”. In the last week, two UK organisations which work with elderly dementia sufferers have have received media attention for doing just that and launching programmes which aim to engage with patients to stimulate memories from the past.

The most recent initiative to gain public attention is called Therapaws, and is designed to bring  pets and people with dementia together on a regular basis with the aim of enriching the lives of those with dementia. The initiative, which is led by the the animal rescue charity,  Mayhew, has the added benefit of working in the interests of the animals and providing shelter for cats, dogs & rabbits across rescue centres in London. The latest initiative extends the animal welfare to improve the welfare of dementia patients living in residential centres across London.

Every week, a task force of up to sixty volunteers make visits to residential centres accompanied by rescue kittens, cats and dogs. According to Mayhew's animal visit coordinator, Stephanie Hall, the animals help “provide patients and visitors with stimulus". This is essential for dementia sufferers to encourage them to interact. The charity believes that this interaction with animals helps to create a more relaxing and stress free environment within the residential centres which has been proven to encourage more of a talking point among patients and during family visits. Earlier in the summer, another organisation shot to the headlines when it was revealed that  two dementia assistance dog teams had passed a period of training and were actively working with people in the early phases of dementia. Dementia Dogs trains dogs to respond when their owners might forget what to do in an emergency - as well as more day to day assistance with reminding owners to get out of bed in the morning or to read a reminder.

Another UK based organisation also received recent press coverage last week for working with male dementia patients and using football to engage and stimulate lost memories. The Sporting Memories Network is a Community Interest Company which exists “to promote and develop the use of sporting memories”. Most recently, it has focused its efforts in the North East of England to collaborate with the opening of a new unit at Monkwearmouth hospital. The hospital is located near to Sunderland and is not far from the city’s famous Stadium of Light football club. The club and its players have become the inspiration for the new dementia unit which will use a variety of methods to stimulate the mens’ memories of players, matches and sports events from several decades ago.

The Sporting Memories Network has taken on the task of creating regularly updated football related material such as fresh content for a weekly football related ‘reminiscence’ newspaper which features pictures and match reports and other football references to stimulate memories between dementia patients and generate discussions. The hope is that these photographs and reports will encourage patients to interact and share stories between one another. The organisation has received positive feedback from relatives and support workers who claim that the football resources are helping to keep the men more “animated”.

The Sporting Memories Network received a more formal note of appreciation earlier this year when it received a letter from the UK Prime minister who thanked the organisation for their “valuable work” to “evoke a great number of memories”. Notably, David Cameron recognised the contribution it was making towards a grass roots development of Dementia Friendly Communities, which indicates that initiatives like this are to be encouraged.

There are some reservations about trying to improve dementia patients’ mental faculties and memory abilities using animals and football because there is little evidence to suggest that it can effectively slow down the progression of dementia. Despite this, there is an increasing demand for new activities to help tap into the memories of those patients in an attempt to combat memory loss and improve overall wellbeing.

Dementia currently affects an estimated 820,000 people in the UK, and the condition largely affects older patients over 65. Given the fact that the UK’s population is an increasingly ageing one, it is thought that dementia will become a frequent challenge for the NHS in the coming decades, so unique initiatives made towards mental health conditions like these might well become more widespread across the UK in years to come.


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