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Dementia - no laughing matter?

28 March 2012

Dementia - no laughing matter?

Question: Is the growing incidence of dementia in our ageing population a laughing matter? Answer: With dementia rates likely to double within the next 30 years definitely not - but a method of making the experience of dementia less stressful could be.

People attending this week’s 2012 Services for Older People conference in Wellington (Thursday and Friday, 29-30 March) will be hearing how humour therapy and play – as practised by ‘clown doctor’ Jean-Paul Bell – have been proven to markedly reduce serious agitation levels experienced by older people with dementia (by an average of 20%).

Jean-Paul Bell is renowned in Australia for his work setting up the Humour Foundation, and more recently his work in support of the Dementia Collaborative Research Centre’s SMILE study and the Play Up program run by the Arts Health Institute. Play Up stimulates and engages people in particularly high care situations by reinforcing positive memories and connections in a playful manner. This approach can often kick-start a person’s oral skills again and lead them to showing their own personal humour.

Earlier this month Australia’s national ABC television network screened a documentary about the SMILE study and Play Up approach titled “The Smile Within – Where there is life, there is laughter”. This film documented the study, and followed Jean-Paul Bell as he delivered the humour intervention to residents in aged care facilities. It also featured staff from the aged care sector, family members of the residents and the academics and researchers who initiated and ran the study, Professor Henry Brodaty, Dr Lee-Fay Low and Dr Belinda Goodenough

Jean-Paul is no stranger to being filmed and was the subject of a 2009 documentary showing how laughter-inducing physical comedy could cross borders into war-torn Afghanistan.

The theme for the 2012 Services for Older People conference is “Moving Forward Together, Nuku Tahi - Hikoi Tahi - Maranga Tahi” and the venue is Te Raukara – Te Wharewaka o Poneke on the Wellington waterfront.

Other presenters will be holding workshops that focus on dementia, including Dr Chris Perkins, author of the book “Dementia: A New Zealand Guide” and director of Auckland-based Selwyn Centre for Ageing and Spirituality, will be discussing other dimensions of dementia. Grace O’Sullivan, of AUT, will talk about changing the culture of dementia care through all levels of service. Grace argues that dementia should be a national health priority.

NZCCSS is the national umbrella organisation for the churches’ social service agencies. NZCCSS supporting members are the Anglican Care network, Baptist Churches of New Zealand, Catholic Social Services, Presbyterian Support Services and the Methodist and Salvation Army churches. Under its “Valuing Older People” programme NZCCSS provides a hub for information and resources that cover the following strands: Social services and Older People; Care and Support in the Community; Poverty and Older People; Housing; Workforce; Dementia and Alzheimers; Spirituality and Ageing; and Research on Ageing. For further background see:


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