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Can Dementia Patients Relearn Day-to-Day Tasks? 

Those with dementia still have the ability to learn new things and relearn tasks they once knew how to perform. This is the conclusion of a doctoral thesis by Swedish scientist Elias Ingebrand, who hopes to debunk the general belief that people with dementia can no longer learn things.  

In his research, titled “Dementia and Learning: The Use of Tablet Computers in Joint Activities,” Ingebrand studied 10 dementia sufferers, eight of whom lived in care facilities and used a tablet computer, such as an iPad. A staff member or a loved one was there for support, but the only instruction given to participants was to use the tablet as they wished. It soon turned out that the devices made them curious. 

The study lasted for four to six weeks, and the findings were remarkable. Although the participants suffered from severe memory decline, they gradually proceeded to use the tablet more independently. The explanation, Ingebrand believes, is that the body remembers the movements required, even though the ability to talk about it has been lost.  

Ingebrand was surprised to find that people with dementia could use a tablet without help from staff or loved ones, by collaborating and learning from each other. They also managed to focus well on the task at hand.  

Findings from Ingebrand’s Research 

The results of Ingebrand’s study suggest that dementia patients retain the ability to focus and learn when their interest is piqued. The study opens up new avenues for creating meaningful activities for dementia patients based on their own interests and capabilities. 

Findings included: 

  • Despite severe memory decline, dementia patients in the study learned to use tablet computers more independently over a period of four to six weeks. 
  • The dementia sufferers could even learn from each other without any intervention from caregivers or loved ones, showing their ability to collaborate and focus on tasks. 
  • The study suggests that engaging dementia patients in meaningful activities based on their interests could help tap into their remaining learning capabilities and improve their quality of life. 

Another fascinating observation Ingebrand described was when a woman who used to do orienteering spontaneously started using the tablet to check competition results. A man who used to be restless and aggressive learned how to navigate to the Open Archive of SVT, the Swedish public television broadcaster. After a while, staff noted that he would sit and watch for a long time, calmly and focused. This was a side of him they had never seen before.  

Ingebrand believes that he has helped show that learning can still take place in those with dementia even without any particular instructions and that his results can also be immediately applied in dementia care. “My thesis has an impact on how we look at people with dementia. They are not to be treated as children, but as people who still have a will and an incentive to do things. This is ultimately about having the opportunity to participate in meaningful activities based on the person’s own interests and desires.” 

Award-Winning Designer Is Making it Easier for Dementia Patients to Relearn Tasks 

Another researcher explored the fact that the body remembers movements with her invention, an award-winning memory tool called Rewind. Singaporean designer Poh Yun Ru designed Rewind as a cognitive stimulation tool for dementia patients to help them relearn tasks they used to perform. The invention won both an iF Design Award in 2022 and the grand prize at the Lexus Design Award (LDA) in 2022. 

Rewind uses visual aids, motion-tracking tools, and sensory cues to spur memory, so dementia patients can relearn how to perform day-to-day tasks such as making tea, watering plants, flipping pancakes, and walking their dogs. According to Ru, “(p)atients use the motion-tracking tool while watching a video of the action or gesture, which creates ‘multi-sensory stimulation’ and spurs ‘meaningful recollections’ that help dementia sufferers reengage with their environments and regain autonomy in their routines.” 

Ru developed the tool when she was searching for a thesis topic. She saw it as an opportunity to delve deeper into understanding dementia patients better, a topic that is close to her heart. She has a family member who suffers from dementia, and she felt that this family member was no longer able to comprehend the nature of her own actions. Sometimes, it seemed as though she acted out to seek attention; at other times, there were no warnings for her emotional breakdowns. Ru began designing Rewind in the hope that she could improve the quality of life of her family member and other dementia patients. 

To develop Rewind, Ru conducted a pilot study involving 20 dementia patients over four weeks. Ru explored their gestures and scenarios to incorporate into her tool to offer experiences in which seniors could relate. According to the Rewind website, “(t)o evoke memories, Rewind uses a motion-tracking tool that guides those with dementia in re-enacting familiar gestures. These actions are then reflected as audio-visual feedback on a paired device, unearthing personal memories that users associate with the sensorial interaction.” Click here to watch a video about the study and the design of this interesting tracking tool.  

Caregivers or therapists can also customize and update new scenarios to make Rewind relevant to their patient. With input from everyone, new gestures and interactions can be integrated and cater more to a wider population, improving the lives of people with dementia and their families. 

Ru is now working closely with a major local health care organization to further develop Rewind through a large-scale feasibility study and improvement on the design. She believes that Rewind will greatly benefit seniors in the future.  

“It’s truly heartening to see how Rewind not only fosters engagement among the elderly but also stimulates them to link their memories with the therapy activities,” she said. “I really enjoy learning and seeing the world from new perspectives and creating something that becomes relevant and meaningful to the community. Knowing that the design has impacted the lives of even a small group of people is truly rewarding and keeps me going.” 

Interested in learning more about how dementia patients are relearning certain tasks they were once familiar with? AgingCare has an excellent article, titled “Managing Dementia Through Redirection and Relearning,” that discusses how redirecting is important when it comes to a person with dementia relearning tasks. Learn more here 

Do You or a Loved One Have Dementia? — the Time to Plan Is Now!  

Persons with dementia, and their families, face special legal and financial needs. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with dementia or any other type of cognitive impairment, it is prudent to start your planning as soon as possible. If you have not done Incapacity Planning, Long-Term Care Planning, or Estate Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past three to five years), now is a good time to plan and get prepared! Please reach out to make an appointment when you’re ready: 

Fairfax Elder Care Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Care Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Care Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Care Attorney: 202-587-2797 

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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