Transforming dementia care with a can of paint

Commentary by Truman Severson, President of Covenant Care 

Over the course of my life I have been around people who have acquired some form of dementia as part of the aging process. When I was young I often accompanied my father, a nursing home chaplain, to his Sunday church service where I was tasked with going to a resident’s room to wheel them to church and then back when it was done. I can still see some of the faces of residents I would pick up—the sometimes vacant and expressionless look when I would come in saying, "Good morning, can I take you to church?"

I now work in continuing care. Over a 15-year career, I have had responsibility for developing dementia programs across Alberta and British Columbia and have seen many changes to the design of these programs to make them secure and private. Yet in spite of our best efforts, I often still see the lost look on many residents' faces, almost like you can look in their eyes and see right through them.

Bright-eyed Chris Hermany (right) is a resident at Villa Marie. Her son Kevin Hermany enjoys spending time in the memory cottage because it feels more open than it did before.

As the population of persons with dementia grows, so too does spending on research looking for treatment or maybe even a cure. Canada’s current spending on research into neurodegenerative diseases, of which Alzheimer’s is one, totals over $50 million annually. In the United States in 2016, this amount was nearly $1 billion. While this important research may one day soon see some big results, residents in the dementia program at Covenant Care-Villa Marie are experiencing great results with the investment of $2,000 to $3,000 for paint, maybe a similar amount for trinkets that often adorn a home, a willingness among staff to try something different and their commitment to exerting the mental and emotional energy it takes to maintain the result. The results I have seen in my visits to Villa Marie are absolutely life-changing. Actually, the result may be better described as "life-returning."

Villa Marie has been piloting the Butterfly Project in its dementia homes. This program originated from Dementia Care Matters out of England and is based on the thinking and research of David Sheard. The focus is profoundly simple: it involves adjusting the care environment from one that alienates and creates a sense of being lost to one that stimulates familiarity and creates a sense of place, purpose and fulfilment.

Resident Cassie Johnson (left) and her family witnessed Villa Marie's entire transformation. Her daughter Joyce Boon (right) says it went from institutionalized to calm and inviting.

For example, the doorway to each resident room in the cottage is painted a bold colour (and I mean bold), all for the purpose of cueing each resident to find their way back. Dementia erases the most recent memories first, leaving residents with their earliest memories last. Recognizing this, each cottage is filled with items that connect residents to the earlier points in their lives: pictures of drive-in diners, mobiles, full bookshelves—things we would think of as clutter. Added to this is the work of staff who become more like neighbours or friends as opposed to caregivers.

So what is the result of all of this? Life, contentment and even joy. It is so visible on their faces—somehow residents are connected to the moment in time that they are in; they are not lost. Rather than seeing vacant stares or faces that show the stress of someone trying to figure out where they are, we are seeing life: reactions, expressions, laughter and moments where the resident is experiencing the joy of living.

A priceless return on a comparatively very modest investment.

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