Laughter may be good medicine for elderly dementia patients – and best of all, it doesn’t have side effects.
Australian humor therapist Jean-Paul Bell was originally a clown doctor working with sick children, but now he makes the elderly laugh through a programme called Play-Up.
Bell was also the key humor therapist in a Sydney-based study into the impact of humor therapy on mood, agitation, behavioral disturbances and social engagement in dementia patients, a study that showed those who took part seemed happier.
“The whole idea behind the Play-Up programme and what we’re doing at the Arts Health Institute is encouraging them to play more because we believe that they’ve got potential to keep playing right until you take your last breath,” Bell said.
He set up the Arts Health Institute to train aged-care staff in fostering playful relationships with their patients, particularly those with dementia.
The study, called the SMILE study, took place over three years, involving 36 nursing homes and 400 residents.
Dressed in a bright blue jacket with brass buttons and shoulder tabs, Bell uses a combination of games, jokes and songs – accompanying himself on a ukulele – to get the elderly to laugh.
In addition to seeming more content, the dementia patients involved in the study seemed less agitated by 20 percent, said lead researcher Lee-Fay Low at the University of New South Wale’s School of Psychiatry.
“Twenty percent sounds like a small effect but it’s about the same amount, the same effect as you would get if you gave them an antipsychotic medication – medication you would use to treat schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder,” Low said.
According to the University of New South Wales, dementia rates are expected to double in Australia to about 450,000, mainly due to an aging population.
Clown doctor Jean-Paul Bell
Clown doctors are now just as common in the wards of some children’s hospitals as their ‘real’ white-coated colleagues.
Their job is to distract the patients and help the days pass just that little bit easier for the adults around them.
Complementary and alternative therapies and dementia
There are high levels of public interest in the various complementary and alternative therapies available today. Many people with dementia, and those who care for them, are interested in using these therapies as alternatives or additions to their conventional treatments, often due to the perceived benefits that they may bring and the image of being ‘safe’ and ‘natural’. This factsheet explains what complementary and alternative therapies are, outlines several therapies for which there is some evidence of their effectiveness and describes how to access these treatments.
This factsheet only addresses therapies that have an evidence base and does not cover treatments for which there is no clinical evidence of effectiveness in dementia, even if they are widely used (such as homeopathy).
Jean-Paul Bell is one of Australia’s best known clown doctors, he’s a co-founder of the not-for profit Humour Foundation.
He’s currently working on a medical trial to extend his laughter therapy to elderly patients with dementia and has also co-written a book called Laughter is the best medicine.
About 6.5 percent of people over 65 and 22 percent of people over 85 have dementia, an umbrella term used to describe up to 60 different conditions causing similar neurodegenerative changes in the brain.
Best of all, the dementia patients weren’t the only ones who benefited from the study.
“The staff were invigorated, they felt that their jobs were enhanced,” said therapist Joanne Rodrigues.
Dementia: drugs used to relieve depression and behavioural symptoms
People with dementia may develop mood disorders such as depression, behavioural problems with symptoms such as restlessness or aggression, or psychiatric symptoms such as psychosis (delusions and hallucinations). This factsheet describes the different types of drugs that may be prescribed to treat these symptoms.
It is important to try to understand and address the underlying causes that may have triggered a person’s symptoms. However, when behavioural or psychiatric symptoms are severe, extremely distressing, or causing risk to the person or others, and if psychological treatments have not worked, it may be necessary to prescribe medication.
The treatment of depression is slightly different, as depression has a major impact on people’s functioning and quality of life. Mild depression can be treated with psychological treatments, but more severe clinically significant depression should be treated with antidepressant medication.
“They were part of something that they could see the real benefits (of).”