Researchers tap the power of playfulness in dementia care

Cat Pocket: sensory textile with embedded electronics. Photo: CARIAD

Cat Pocket: sensory textile with embedded electronics. Photo: CARIAD

In summary: 
  • Collaborative research by UTS and Cardiff Metropolitan University is exploring the role of playfulness and creativity in supporting the wellbeing of people with dementia
  • This weekend (16-17 August) a 'funshop' is being held for people to make new kinds of textiles and toys for dementia patients

The emotional memory of fun isn't lost for people with late-stage dementia, a potential key to improving quality of life according to researchers.

UTS's Dr Gail Kenning and Dr Cathy Treadaway, Visiting Scholar and Reader in Creative Practice at Cardiff Metropolitan University in the UK, have been working together for several years exploring how arts and creativity could have benefits for peoples' wellbeing and quality of life, especially those with late-stage dementia.

Rather than being a single disease, dementia describes a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders which affect the brain and interfere with thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks. 

The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, accounting for two thirds of cases. More than 332,000 Australians are currently living with dementia with more than 1700 new cases diagnosed per week, a number which is expected to grow to 7400 new cases per week by 2050.

Kenning and Treadaway's current research is into the benefits of sensory textiles for people with dementia. Tailored specifically to the individual and their preferences and history, the dementia aprons contain areas of interest within the surface of the cloth, such as buttons, zips to undo, and things in pockets, and are being used in aged care homes to soothe and comfort people with dementia.

"For example, one of the gentlemen used to be an accountant, and so by using suit fabrics in the piece for him, it can tap into his emotional memory. When he touches it he may not make the direct link between it and the suit he wore as an accountant but there may be a familiarity about that which can be comforting," Kenning explained.

"A lot of the focus over recent years has been on trying to find cures for dementia," said Treadaway. "People with dementia are often stigmatised but they have as much right to be happy and have fun as the rest of us and everyone in the community has a part to play."

Research has already shown that creative activities and sensory aids can have health benefits for people with dementia, reducing the requirement for medications which are used to alleviate the anxiety and fear experienced by many people with late-stage dementia.

"There's something very strange about how we think about things like 'fun'. Often when we're younger we tend to think of fun like 'I know I had fun because I remember it… it was last week and I had a great time'," Kenning said.

"But when you get to a point where there is no memory of that fun, it doesn't diminish the emotional memory. The positive emotional memory is retained even if the details of the experience can't be remembered."

During Treadaway's visit, the team is hosting a "funshop" where attendees will be able to learn more about the research as well as make sensory textiles for people with dementia. At a recent similar event in Wales, participants developed textiles with embedded electronics such as the cat pocket (pictured) which vibrated when stroked reminiscent of a purring cat.

The "funshop" will take place at the Powerhouse Museum as part of Sydney Mini Maker Faire on 16 and 17 August and is open to the general public. For more information and tickets, visit this page.