The Laugh Project is a project based on Compassionate Design – designing for people living with advanced dementia with Prof. Cathy Treadaway.
Compassionate Design is a new approach in designing for people suffering from advanced form of dementia. The purpose is about creating an artefact that can bring some joy and comfort to the patients. They don’t like to call them toys but playful object. The word play implies a goal to that action, when handling for example a ball there is much more involved with it, there is a process going on in relation to the object, but not a goal. The playful object has an arduino device integrated capable of sound and much more that leaves space to personalization, which is crucial since every patient is different and with different needs. Indeed, dementia has 100 different forms and it is very difficult to deal with someone affected by it. Very often the patients are not capable to communicate. In this case it is important to bring together and involve the family, friends, or when they are not available, the carers, to provide some information about those things that could improve the life of the patient.
The launched the project with an article in the Journal of DementiaCare. Their first patient was Thelma, 93 years, going through a difficult moment in her life, not talking or eating much. The carers of the care home didn’t think there was much left to do for her but prof Cathy and her team decided that she would make a perfect candidate for the same reasons. They made a puppet of the size of an one year old child, with long arms and legs able to surround her in a Hug and integrated a device that would play her favourite music. It would also feature a ‘heart’, a small device that would act like a little vibrator that gives the sensation of a beating heart, very calming. Back then she wasn’t opening her eyes or talking anymore but she responded positively to the puppet by nested her head in its cosy fabric. Sometimes it is difficult to understand what people with dementia actually feel or think. With Thelma though they saw a strong reaction when they tried to take the puppet away, she just started crying. The next week she opened her eyes and talked 2 words. The next week she started eating more and in 4 months she was more able to use her hands. Thelma lived 9 months after meeting ‘Hug’ the puppet. The carers were amazed by the improvement of the quality of her life and admitted that Thelma had become a different person than what they knew. Her experience made the Laugh Project Team confident that they could improve other patient’s quality of life too so they went on with it finding other patients to work with and they also received funding for further research. People with the disease tend to stop socialising, and this puppet proved to be valuable.
They worked afterwords with 7 patients, selected after consulting with the carers of a care home, that would be in a more difficult situation such as being alone, without family or friends to go find them. Memory, prof. Cathy explains, is retained even during the disease so the connections with the outside world is still present. Things like crafting, games and having fun, being playful are very helpful and proved to improve patient’s quality of life, both physically and mentally. The Team also run workshops asking people affected by dementia what it is for them having fun or have importance to them and they came up with 6 important things finding a patient to put each one in practice:
- Nurturing – It is caring for something or someone, look after them and also being looked after. A research gave some pot plants to some patients but not to others. The ones given a pot lived longer;
- Movement – If you can not move, finding small ones is important. They worked on this problem on a patient that used to enjoy cars very much but now was in a wheelchair. The Team created a wheel shaped object and integrated some interactive features as a small vibrator and it would also play the music he liked. The carers never saw David so interactive;
- Security – This lady loved jewellery so the Team made some jewellery that she could interact with. Among other things, it had some shells on it and the lady started speaking ‘I used to love going to the beach’, after many days she wouldn’t say a word;
- They did an old style telephone spoke Spanish and they put Spanish music on it to play too. In a short period of time the other patients got enthusiastic and since the majority was welsh they decided to put welsh music as well;
- Attention (started as distraction but it was too negative). They did little balls representing smiley faces that when you shake make the laughter of children. The response to them. Some people found them scary. The carers found them amazing and saw the positive aspect of it. This showed how an item it is important of being personalised. The design has to be appropriate for the patient
- Purposeful For a person with dementia is enough small things. Gordon was a sailor, so they made a wood product but nothing made him happy. After some failed attempts they created Luma, an interactive cylindrical design with an inner ring across it that by moving it on the right and left from the centre would sing birds voices and the laser cut birds on it would change colour.
And also won an Award for it:They work closely with a neurologist to see what happens in the brain of the patient during an MRI before and after their interaction with the playful object designed for them. They also started a collaboration with Men’s Shed from Brigent and Squirrel’s Nest, experts capable to contribute in the manufacture of the artefacts. A productive collaboration that they hope not only to continue but also to expand by bringing other people around the table.
The project was initially and still is based around care homes but they are looking into expanding in the private area as well in the future. The challenge and their aim for the next 2 years is to make affordable products. She concludes affirming that the NHS would save money if patients affected by dementia would improve the quality of their lives. Patients would be more in control, fall less and would make save money on the insurance. There is a big problem called dementia and a need for carers to be educated. A need to train them, to help them understand the project and the playful objects otherwise having an object like this put on a table or a shelve by itself would just stay there unused. In society we value work but we should do the same with playfulness because this is what keeps us healthy.
The seminar was informative and very touching. I discovered dementia to be a problem that it is affecting many families and I wasn’t aware about. Not at this level anyway. I knew about Alzheimer but I was surprised about it to be just one of the forms of dementia. I think that what affected me the most was learning that there are many old people in care homes without a family, left alone to deal with such a difficult disease that takes away the joy of living. One of the main reasons, I suppose, the research came to life in the first place. I am always surprised by all the initiatives people have in helping others and the University that is open to share them, creating awareness among students about so many topics.