Can recordings help with dementia?

Conceptual computer artwork showing the brain of an elderly man affected by Alzheimer's disease Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, which means more parts of the brain are damaged over time

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Discovering the best way to help those with dementia deal with their condition is still in its early stages, but some research suggests that reminiscing about times-gone-by could make a difference.

Recording memories is a popular thing to do.

From the fans at the front of a concert filming on their phones to the formal photos of the late 19th Century, the memory bank of the world seems to rely on physical recordings of events, of people and of places.

But could it serve an even more useful purpose for those with dementia? A sort of "reminiscence therapy".

The Alzheimer's Society estimates that in less than 10 years time, a million people will be living with dementia. This, they say, will reach an estimated 1.7 million people in fewer than 40 years.

They also say that one in three people over 65 will die with dementia.

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Tape recording device

Dad's Last Tape, an exploration of why people record their life stories, is on BBC Radio 4

Research organisation Iriss claim that "reminiscence therapy and life story work can improve the mood, cognitive ability and well-being of those with mild to moderate dementia".

And the Alzheimer's Society believe that the therapy is a good way to help empower people with dementia, by accessing long-term memories.

'Laughing and joking'

One way of trying to access someone's long-term memory is to make video or audio recordings and play them back before symptoms become severe.

Start Quote

It was just lovely to watch something coming back”

End Quote Eleanor Carer for dementia patient

Eleanor's husband Barry made a tape before the onset of his dementia.

"One day I remembered this tape where Barry talked about his youth and he had a really happy childhood. He was really enthusiastic about it so he was laughing and joking," says Eleanor, who does not want her surname to be made public.

She thinks that playing this tape back to Barry has really helped him - and helped her too.

"By this time, he was really agitated, wouldn't sit down, wouldn't listen to the radio and I put this tape on one day and he was astonishing... he was, like, hypnotised.

"He just sat there. Every so often, he'd smile. He didn't know it was him but he really knew it was something to do with him and he was just smiling at the jokes and the funny bits. I'm crying now thinking about it.

"The thing is, I don't really know how good it was for him but it was amazing for me.... It was just lovely to watch something coming back."

'Unexpected clarity'

The problem is that quantifying results like this is often difficult.

The Cochrane review entitled 'Reminscence therapy for dementia' (2009) reported that more research was needed before any conclusions could be drawn. It said no harmful effects were identified, but that studies so far have significant limitations.

But stories of how recordings are helping certain people are already reaching charities.

"While it is too early for this specific approach to have a scientific evidence base, the anecdotal feedback suggests it could have benefits for people with dementia and their carers," says Andrew Chidgey, Alzheimer's Society's director of external affairs.

"Other methods of accessing long-term memories - or reminiscence therapy - have also been found to be a powerful way of stimulating communication and enabling people to recall moments from their past with unexpected clarity."

David Cameron visits Alzheimer's Society David Cameron has said that dementia must be treated "like the national crisis it is"

Dementia charity Opaal is working on a report and on advice to help those working with dementia patients who want to record their views.

"Memory recording has been done that's non-technological, usually on paper," says Jeff Lee, an intern researcher at Opaal who is authoring the report. "But if we want something to help someone's memory, look no further than the computer. It's there but it doesn't seem to be very mainstream. I find that puzzling."

The difficulty can come, Mr Lee believes, in quantifying results and agreeing that one particular method is suitable for all patients with dementia.

"One of the dangers of this is the prevalence of 'ray of hope' news stories," he says.

"They say 'if you eat more of this, it will help dementia' and it does lead you down this quantified route of what is good and what is bad. In a way, that ignores the basic realities that people caring for those with dementia face every day. It's not about numbers, it's about how someone responds."

"If people were doing it from the ground up and trying things out, I think it could prompt organisations to take it more seriously, but of course then there are safeguarding issues so it's very difficult," says Lee.

"But why shouldn't people with dementia get the benefits of the digital revolution like anybody else?"

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