Can Television Be a Dementia Activity?

by Michael J. Milazzo

Wipeout LogoToday, I learned that the ABC game game show, Wipeout is a major hit among several of the residents in one San Francisco assisted living dementia community. It is 8:30 PM and most residents are either already in or on their way to bed. It is a time so quiet in most assisted living communities that one might think the building has been evacuated. I am here late checking on a resident who has trouble sleeping through the night; keeping her up past 9:00 PM helps to minimize late-night wandering which is often accompanied by heightened confusion and paranoid delusions.

Still frame from ABC's Wipeout.
Still frame from ABC

Upon entering the “pod” I find the resident in question watching Television with a few other residents. It seems instantly clear that they are all actively watching the show, they are glued to the action, reacting and some even interacting with the program. Frankly, the monkey parts of my brain are immediately grabbed by the brightly colored, live-action video game that is Wipeout. The residents and I both giggle on cue when an exhausted, mud covered, contestant, face-plants on one of the padded, bright red, mechanized contraptions. The on-duty caregiver emerges from one of the resident rooms and reports with a smile that, “they don’t want to go to bed when this is on.” As the caregiver runs through a half-dozen different memorable reactions and interactions that take place among her residents while they are watching this show, one mostly non-verbal woman groans empathetically as a contestant falls into a pool of mud for the third time. I ask, “Anybody here want to do that?” The group quickly and unanimously answer, “No!”

For the sake of science, let me describe this audience. This is a group of five women who’s dementia related symptoms would each respectively fit into what the Alzheimer’s Association would call the fifth, sixth or seventh stage of Alzheimer’s. Some are verbal while some rarely speak a recognizable word. A couple are roamers and a couple more are agitated sundowners. While there is a range of skills and deficits among the individuals, these are all people who sadly and unquestionably need to be under secure, twenty-four hour supervision and care. However, this show seems to work for them all.

It is generally considered bad form for any community, especially a dementia community, to include a television show in their activities, because it is rare that the person with dementia can track a narrative .. there lies the beauty of Wipeout. It has no narrative, it is all slap-stick and action. Perfect. Yes, television is weak stimuli, but anything offering a confused, sundowning person a break from their agitation is a worthwhile addition to the activity schedule.

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