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The best medicine

Inject some humour into your relationships with residents with dementia, writes Jane Verity.

People with dementia unlearn in the opposite order to which they learn. This means that what they learnt first in life is going to be unlearnt last. The first thing we learn as babies is to smile and laugh, so the very last thing a person with dementia is going to unlearn will be smiling and laughing.

Why not make your most important task each day to give those in your care the opportunity to have a good laugh. Not only does laughter spread joy and create a wonderful atmosphere, it also boosts the happy hormones – endorphins – which in turn boost our immune systems.

What do you have to lose?
In a colourful bum bag, carry small, fun and cute items that move and do unexpected things. An example would be a small rubber frog with gel eyes that pop out when you squeeze its stomach. Unexpected actions such as these are so surprising and sure winners to elicit not just smiles, but also a good laugh.

Fun items could include small rubber animals that unroll a long tongue; a set of small wind-up dentures that hop around on large feet; funny rattles with faces that talk when they’re waved in the air or an old time frog that hops unexpectedly.

Other ideas include a set of novelty earrings, a sparkly necklace, or bowtie that blinks or makes a funny noise.

If the person with dementia appreciates an item, let them wear or enjoy it for the day. They will become the centre of attention, which in turn generates positive feelings. These reactions are bound to boost the person’s self-esteem.

The most successful items are usually those that are small and cost very little. Often you can find them in novelty shops, toyshops, newsagents, service stations and tourist shops. Just start looking and soon you’ll begin to find them everywhere.

Carry the items in something like a bum bag so you’ll always have them handy to use anytime on the spur of the moment.

Tips for success
Of course, there are some important hints to follow to ensure that this activity is not regarded as childish.

Only do it if you personally enjoy being playful and love people with dementia, respect them as whole human beings, and regard it as an honour to work with them.

Introduce the items in such a way to allow you and the other person to come together as two adults in awe of what is available today.

For example, you could say: “Isn’t it amazing what they make today? I found this little one and I just wanted to share it with you”. Show the object and allow yourself to laugh while saying something, such as: “Isn’t it funny?”

Getting your team involved

If you are a manager and you would like to try it, how about you give each team member wishing to trial the concept a small amount of money, say $20. Encourage them to buy a colourful bum bag and a couple of small, fun items.

Remember, since this idea might not appeal to everyone, it is just as important to free those who don’t like it, as it is to encourage those who’d love to participate.

Limiting the spending amount inspires creativity, and by encouraging each staff member to do their own purchasing ensures they each have the opportunity to buy exactly what appeals to their particular sense of humour. Then, when they share their fun things with the person who has dementia, their own joy and delight will shine through and their enthusiasm contagious.

Jane Verity is CEO of Dementia Care Australia.

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