A New Way to Help Dementia Patients - and Doctors

A storytelling program involving both medical students and dementia patients may help prospective physicians deal better with people suffering from mental decline.

The program, TimeSlips, was developed  by Daniel George, assistant professor of humanities at Penn State University.  In the elective course, fourth-year medical students worked with patients at  Country Meadows, an assisted-living facility in Hershey, Pa. The patients are affected by advanced dementia.

George said that the aim of the program was to provide the medical students with a positive framework for working with such patients.

"We currently lack effective drugs for dementia, and there's a sense that these are cases where students can't do much to benefit the patient," George said. "The perception is that they're hard to extract information from, you don't know if that information is reliable, and there are often other complicated medical issues to deal with."

The TimeSlips program uses creative storytelling in a group setting.  Rather than focusing on the patients’ inability to remember events chronologically, the program emphasizes the use of the imagination. Participants are shown a surreal picture – for example, George says, an elephant sitting on a park bench – and are encouraged to give their impressions.  The medical students then help the participants build their stories into a poem.

“All comments made during a session -- even ones that do not necessarily make logical sense -- are validated and put into the poem because it is an attempt to express meaning," George said. " In the process, students come to see dementia differently. It is very humanizing, revealing personality and remaining strengths where our culture tends to just focus on disease, decline and loss."

The study was reported in the journal Academic Medicine.


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