"As Alzheimer's disease progresses, the need to nurture, love and be loved increases." American Assoc Geriatric Psychiatrists
Though many scientific studies use genetically modified mice to replicate what the effects of Alzheimer's disease would be in a human brain, there are several species of animals that naturally develop brain changes that resemble Alzheimer's in humans, namely dogs.
Like people, when dogs age, some develop learning and memory problems, while some remain sharp and as capable of learning as younger dogs. Dogs even have symptoms of cognitive decline that are very similar to those in humans, such as disrupted or irregular sleeping schedules and difficulty recognizing family members and friends.
Elizabeth Head, PH.D, of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, said their lab began studying beagles in the early 1990s due to interest in developing a drug to treat "dog dementia", using observations from pet owners about behavioral changes in their older dogs. Not much was known then about cognitive changes in aging dogs (the study group being beagles over eight years old), and the center's research began with finding ways to record and measure these changes.
Read more: What can beagles teach us about Alzheimer’s disease?
Photo by Tom Eblen
Three decades ago, the Best Friends Day Center in Lexington, KY began creating a new approach to caregiving for people with Alzheimer's and dementia called the "Best Friends Approach", which is now an internationally recognized care model that has been implemented in over 30 countries.
Virginia Bell began the Best Friends program in 1984, and has co-authored several books on the subject of Alzheimer's therapy, and at 92 years old, continues to be an energetic force behind the Best Friends initiative.
The center says they are always looking for volunteers to spend time with residents (volunteers' ages range from high school students to those in their 80s and 90s), however, they are particularly looking for men, who comprise only 18 of the center's 88 current volunteers.
Bell says that male volunteers are especially helpful to male participants, who are sometimes disinterested in the center's arts and crafts sessions, and enjoy rather talking about sports and their careers or military service.
Read more: Tom Eblen: Center needs volunteers to help with therapy for Alzheimer's patients
On Sunday, actress Julianne Moore won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of a patient with early-onset Alzheimer's in the film Still Alice. In the movie, Moore's character is just 50 years old when she is diagnosed, and the narrative of the film follows both her and her family's struggle to cope with her mental decline.
Up to 5% of Alzheimer's sufferers are under the age of 65—typically in their 40's or 50's. These younger patients diagnosed with the disease are considered to have an "early onset" of Alzheimer's, which is where this form of dementia gets its name.
Consulted by Moore during her research for the film, Mary Sano, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of Alzheimer’s disease research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says that the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s are no different than symptoms of more typical cases; however because the disease is so rare in adults under the age of 65, the signs may not be as quickly recognizable.
Marian Grunwald, Earl Elfstrom and Verna Matheson (left to right) bounced a balloon back and forth with nursing assistant Rick Pavlisich on Dec. 13, 2013 at an Ecumen nursing home in Chisago City, Minn. Photo Credit: Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune, Minneapolis St. Paulvia NPR
Activity staffer Jessica Abbott, of Pathstone Living, a nursing home and memory care facility in Mankato, MN, is responsible for making sure patients at Pathstone have easy and natural access to activities that are both soothing and mentally stimulating.
Small comforts like making apple crisp while listening to music help calm patients and give them something relaxing and meaningful to do. These planned activities have also allowed Pathstone to reduce the number of patients taking antipsychotics--drugs the FDA says can increase the risk of death for people with Alzheimer's and dementia.
With their unique program called Awakenings, Pathstone was able to reduce its antipsychotic drug use among patients by 97 percent within one year.
Shelley Matthes, a registered nurse working for the nonprofit Ecumen, which runs Pathstone, says the changes in Pathstone's residents were as dramatic as the antipsychotic reduction itself.
"'They started interacting,' recalls Matthes, 'and people who hadn't been speaking were speaking. They came alive and awakened.'" (source)
Read more: This Nursing Home Calms Troubling Behavior Without Risky Drugs
Many health professionals working with Alzheimer's patients assure that therapeutic activities should focus mainly on the person's interests before the disease, as well as stimulate both older and more recent memories, while highlighting the patient's remaining abilities and make their compromised abilities easier to manage.
Each activity will affect individual patient's differently; not all activities will have a positive effect on every patient.
Examples of therapeutic activities proven through various research studies to improve and reduce behavorial problems in people with Alzheimer's include playing their favorite music, one-on-one interactions, playing videos of of family members, going for walks, and spending time with a special pet.
Memorable Pets enriches these fragile moments spent with loved ones with Alzheimer's by providing plush cats and dogs that help relax and soothe Alzheimer's patients, as well as give them an extra sense of comfort and security.