Cushioning the impact of dementia

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Michele Mackenzie making a cushion.

By Drew Tapley

Sometimes the solution to a problem comes out of left field and has a mindbog­gling effect. At least this is what happened to Michele Mackenzie, executive director of Maple Grove Care Community in Brampton, Ontario, when she had a resident with dementia removing everything from the walls.

“Simon slowly and methodi­cally began removing things from the hallway walls,” said Michele. “He started with the interactive things, then removed a point of care screen, hand sanitizers, and all the wall hangings. Everything was screwed in place, and he just used his hands to jimmy the items left and right until they came off.”

Sixty-six percent of residents at Maple Grove have some form of dementia, and the hallways contain a number of interactive objects for them to use, such as textured panels secured to the walls. The hallways soon became bare due to Simon’s activities, with screw holes all along them, and no point in put­ting anything back up as he would rip it down again.

“My building services manager couldn’t keep anything on the walls. He didn’t know what to do,” says Michele.  One day, Simon went into the dining room during meal service and started ripping down the cur­tains. But the problem really esca­lated when he began entering other residents’ rooms and removing things from their walls. This was very upsetting for residents and their families.

“I had to do something immedi­ately, and the idea just came to me. I was watching him and noticed that he looks upwards, and is drawn to anything in his specific line of sight. He needed something to interact with and keep him busy because he thinks he’s doing a useful task, and requires an activity that is not going to cause him or anybody else harm. Well, if he likes to rip things off the wall, I thought—why don’t we velcro a cushion to the wall?”

And that was that. The idea went into production straight away, and Michele went on a mission to find objects that would draw his atten­tion, as eyesight is adversely affected with dementia.

She got the brightest coloured cushions she could find, and bought textured haberdash­ery items at Walmart such as sequins, tassels, and a variety of buttons.

“I sewed them on the cush­ions myself, and my team was very involved in giving feedback and suggestions about what he liked, where to put the cush­ions, and other materials we could use on them, such as a zipper.”

The team have been ex­cited to help, and it has allowed them to get on with their work without having to constantly redirect Simon or intervene if he goes into someone’s room. They currently have four cushions spread out down the hall, and the in­put from team members at the care community owned by Sienna Senior Living has been vital in making this initiative work.

“They will say things like, ‘It’s a narrow space between these two doors, and he can go into either room. Can you get a smaller cushion and put it into that space?’” Once they discovered the answer in the cushions, they then had to decide where best to put them.

“We had a lady who had lost her purse, and we were looking at the cameras to try and find it. At the same time, we happened to see Simon do his circuit, and realized that there are certain areas in the hallway that he is drawn to, which helped us place the cushions and determine how high up they should go.

“The thing about dementia is that people have a need to be constantly on the move. With the cushions on the walls, they can pull them off and keep walking, and we just put them back up again. It’s ongoing therapy. But the interactive stationary objects that have been permanently secured to the wall, don’t hold the same appeal.

“From what we can see, residents do not have the concentration level to stop, stand and interact with them. It’s not something they can take with them and continue to interact with—unless they are ripping them off the wall,” she adds with an ironic giggle.

One of the objects she is referring to is a wooden board with multicolored beads, which, strangely enough, Simon completely ignores. Overall, Michele is confident that this initiative has solved the problem with Simon, and says he seems to enjoy it as well.

“He doesn’t go into the rooms anymore. Instead he heads towards a room, sees the cushion on the wall, stops and takes it. It services his need, and he heads off down the hall with it.”

Drew Tapley is a Writer with Sienna Senior Living.

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