Based at the Department of Applied Social Sciences at the HM Hochschule München University of Applied Sciences, Professor Stefan Pohlmann and his team are using innovative technologies and approaches to bring back memories, as part of the research project “Dementia patients and family: Developing and intensifying relationships.” The project, which started in October 2017, has been sponsored by the Bavarian State Ministry for Health and Care in the framework of the Bavarian dementia strategy.
In the state of Bavaria alone we have over 230,000 dementia patients, all of whom are cared for by their next of kin or healthcare professionals. The illness has many symptoms: from changes in experiences and behavior to significant loss of control. All of this puts significant pressure on family members and caregivers. “The ability to communicate decreases, which is the biggest strain on people and relationships,” explains Stefan Pohlmann, professor of gerontology at HM. “Caregiving relatives—be it husband or partner, daughter or son-in-law—they would all like to interact with the dementia patient, but they don’t know how to.”
A photograph of familiar utensils from the past—father and daughter start a conversation, even though the father has a severe case of dementia. This is where the applied research project comes in: using technology is key to finding new ways to bring memories back to life. Together with his team, Pohlmann is looking for communication strategies that can help avoid the frustration that goes along with general conversations and joint activities with dementia sufferers.
As soon as a conversation gets started, then we already see a great improvement.Prof. Pohlmann, Munich University of Applied Sciences
Approaches under development involve using digital media to present aspects of a patient’s life story and experiences. One group of such tools are the so-called “generation clips”: short videos that revolve around everyday topics or experiences like “washing laundry today, and in the old days.” The camera work, speed, and length of the clips are tailored to the needs of dementia patients, and plots are kept simple. “Our videos are meant to start the conversation: ‘Do you remember the washboard? When did our family get their first washing machine? Who did the washing?’” These are just some of the examples that Pohlmann mentions. “At present, we have nine such video clips on different topics. Of course, families can make their own videos and include the grandchildren, for example.”
A photograph from a holiday in the seventies can also serve a special purpose. It is part of a special digital memory game, which father and daughter can look at together on a tablet computer. The daughter has digitized the printed photograph with her smartphone and inserted it into the digital game. Depending on how her father reacts, she can integrate further pictures from that time period or from other decades.
“The main thing is that these pictures are about the life of the dementia patient and that they trigger something in them. As soon as a conversation gets started, then we already see a great improvement,” says Pohlmann. “Joint activities and remembering things together build mutual understanding and can revive communication on an equal footing.”
These new approaches are playful and creative, they include the life history of the patient and promote mutual activities, thus enabling conversations. Family members and health care professionals who deal with dementia patients have a keen interest in all types of aids—and the afflicted individuals can profit from them immediately because they are tailored to their requirements and impairments. In the scope of the project, further tools are being developed and scientifically tested for their functionality.
Dementia cannot be cured, but we can change the course of the illness.Prof. Pohlmann, Gerontologist at the Munich University of Applied Sciences
Soon to be completed is an IT-template for so-called “biography work.” This template incorporates a selection of multimedia elements that can be personalized toward all participants, within a framework that guides the interactions and course of play. This utilizes individual resources and the potentials of all participants. As with other tools created by team that are already being used in various private care centers and specialized dementia units, the researchers first develop the material and then test it rigorously in practice. For example, after watching the generation clips or playing memory, family members fill out a questionnaire: What were the reactions of the dementia patients? How did the conversation develop? What can be improved?
“Dementia cannot be cured, but we can change the course of the illness,” the gerontologist points out. His project is an important step toward resolving established views of passively enduring this illness, by providing constructive and creative advice on self-empowerment and coping with stress. “We see ourselves as a motor for personal initiative and empowerment,” states Pohlmann.
Scope of the Project
Creating four IT-based solution packages, which can be used in everyday life to improve communication between dementia patients and their families or caregivers. These will be games (e.g. memory), communication manuals (e.g. color dialog setting), biography work (IT-template) and cohort work (generational video clips)
Bavarian Ministry of Health and Care in the framework of the Bavarian dementia strategy
- Alzheimer Gesellschaft München
- AWO-Seniorenzentrum Christian-Dierig-Haus, Augsburg
- Kompetenzzentrum München Beraten – Wohnen – Pflegen
In the next phase of the project, the team will focus more intensely on caregivers and the considerable stress they face, and will expand their investigations into creative ways of minimizing the vulnerability of care staff. By supporting expert care givers, this work can contribute to the prevention of deteriorating conditions, promote patient health and welfare, and at the same time can ensure a higher level of quality care.