More than five million Americans are living with some form of dementia and one in nine people age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s disease. While researchers have not found a cure for dementia, one professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University is using her service learning project to help slow down the progress for a group of dementia patients in College Station.
Dr. Christine Tisone, professor of health education, started the memory care project at The Waterford at College Station as part of her human disease class three years ago. For the first year of the project, she let her students volunteer to take part. She said the feedback was so incredible, she made the project mandatory for all of her students each semester.
“100 percent of the students, in a formal evaluation and reflection assignment they have to do after their experience, have reported it to be a positive experience in terms of personal growth and satisfaction,” said Dr. Tisone. “There are always many comments about how good it feels to spent two hours focusing on others instead of on their own relatively minor problems.”
Students in Dr. Tisone’s class spend two hours twice a week interacting with patients at The Waterford, engaging them in evidence-based memory care activities. One group of students works with patients whose memory issues are not as severe playing bingo and doing life story interviews. The second group works with patients in the memory care unit who have a more severe level of dementia for scent painting.
Research has shown that there is a strong association with memory and the sense of smell. One reason is the way the brain processes odors and memories. Smells are routed through the olfactory bulb which is the smell-analyzing region in the brain. It is closely connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which handle memory and emotion. Visual, sound and touch information does not pass through those brain areas.
Dr. Tisone’s scent painting activity involves mixing spices with water to make watercolor paints with the hope that the scents will bring back memories for the patients. Students are trained to elicit conversation based on reactions to those smells.
“We’re doing this in the memory care unit where their dementia is a little worse, but a lot of them are still able to comment on those smells to recall memories based on those smells. It starts conversations,” explained Dr. Tisone. “The most important thing for memory care is interactions with other people.”
“We were able to paint one of the resident’s name and a flower and then use that to talk about her kids and their names and the types of flowers she enjoys most. I think the company and the activity truly made her day much better and helped with her memory recall,” explained Myriam Fillion, a senior health major.
While dementia is not reversible, Dr. Tisone believes the activity is making a positive impact on the patients and potentially slowing down the progress of dementia. She has seen patients become more talkative and able to recall more about their past than before the project started three years ago. Family members have also commented to Dr. Tisone about the fact that their loved ones seem more alert and less anxious than before.
“I feel like we’re making a long-term impact here and giving hundreds of students each year the opportunity to be part of it,” explained Dr. Tisone. “A lot of my students have come back to volunteer on their own after doing this. It doesn’t take long to bond with a particular person or maybe just the feel of this place.”
One of Dr. Tisone’s students that participated in the project had already planned to continue her education and become a registered nurse. However, this project convinced her to specialize in gerontology/memory care.
“This project made me realize that I had a special gift when it comes to working with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients,” explained Colin Coleman. “I was very calm and at ease while interacting with the patients, and I was able to communicate therapeutically with them when other students were not as comfortable with doing so.”