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Living and Learning with Dementia

April 16, 2019

Elena Ceban was eager to introduce her friends at Lasell Studios to students in Professor Joann M. Montepare's "Living and Learning with Dementia" course. That's because the group comprises the nine residents of Lasell Studios, a supportive living facility at Lasell Village designed specifically for older adults with cognitive impairments.

Ceban and her staff refer to the residents as "friends" or "neighbors" as a reminder of everyone's inclusion in the Lasell community, regardless of campus location. The joint course with Montepare involved weekly visits between enrolled students and those neighbors. Through those interactions, the pair hoped to educate the younger generation about dementia.

"It is important to keep community connections for adults who have this disease, as they often become isolated," said Montepare.  

The psychology professor and director of the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies educated students about variations of dementia, its symptoms, and research behind its prevention. Most recently, the class - which has now run twice since its introduction in 2018 - was trained in TimeSlips, a novel technique used to engage adults with dementia in creative storytelling.

According to Montepare, TimeSlips uses pictures as prompts and opens storytelling to everyone by replacing the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine. Thanks to Ceban, students were able to put what they learned from Montepare into context.

"Here at the Studios, we live in the now," said Ceban. "We don't expect the neighbors to remember, but their pleasure and level of socialization in the moment with the students means that they enjoyed the interactions a lot."

The weekly exchanges were mutually beneficial.

"Students got to see, firsthand, and on a progressive basis, what dementia looks like," said Ceban. "With that comes an understanding of how to react and respond to behaviors and situations unique to this condition."

For example, she said, a neighbor's mood may rapidly change for no visibly apparent reason. Learning how to manage that with the right words and phrases is key, as is understanding that such reactions often have little to do with the conversation or activity at hand.

Most importantly, said Ceban, students learned that dementia is not a disease to be afraid of, but rather, thoughtfully and nimbly navigated. Montepare fully agrees and hopes that students leave class with being able to see the whole person, and not just their disease.

The Living and Learning with Dementia course is just one of many component of Lasell's Age-Friendly University (AFU) initiative, which creates and supports intergenerational programming efforts on campus.

Lasell Studios is part of Lasell Village, the College's living and learning community for residents aged 65 and over. The Studios - named for their apartment setup - features nine individual studio rooms with a common kitchen, laundry room, living room, and onsite 24-hour care. Developed six years ago, the facility specializes in the support of daily living activities and residents' independence for those with cognitive diseases. Ceban's work with the Studios led to her receiving LeadingAge Massachusetts' 2018 Heart and Hands award.