Jogging memories


YouTube clips are being used in reminiscence therapy sessions for patients with dementia, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

And, yes I know how lonely life can be,

The shadows follow me and the night won’t set me free,

But I don’t let the evening get me down

Now that you’re around me. . .”

IT’S A karaoke session with a difference: a group of five or six patients at the Adelaide Meath Hospital in Tallaght sing along to a recording of Perry Como’s 1960s song, And I Love You So, while watching a YouTube clip of the famous American singer.

We have been invited to join a reminiscence therapy session, which uses the video-sharing website to look at old movie clips of Dublin, sing along to John McCormack, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, and even have a giggle at the antics of Laurel and Hardy in black and white clips from a bygone era.

The expressions on the patients’ faces tell their own stories. Some are thrilled to reflect back on these times, offering personal stories of their working lives as Ronnie Drew sings the The Rare Auld Times as he walks over Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge.

“Did you ever pay to cross the bridge?” speech therapist Julia O’Rourke asks the participants. Some say they did, remembering exactly where the toll was taken. Others shake their heads and remain silent.

O’Rourke and occupational therapist Fiona Tobin started using YouTube in reminiscence therapy sessions last July when a consultant in the Age-Related Unit, Ronán Collins, mentioned how his mother-in-law had so enjoyed looking back at old news clips and live music performances from the 1960s and 1970s.

“We were looking for new ways to engage dementia patients. They say they’ve nothing to do on the wards and many of them are medically well but waiting to be transferred to long-stay units,” explains O’Rourke.

The reminiscence therapy sessions using YouTube have given patients the opportunity to meet other patients outside the daily routines of hospital life. Some of them enjoy the memories the YouTube clips bring up while others simply find singing along to the songs or watching old movies lifts their mood. The sessions give staff greater insight into the lives of the patients and even provide fresh conversation topics for family members when they visit.

Last week, O’Rourke and Tobin presented their project, entitled Silver Surfers at the YouTube Group, at a conference in Belfast on reminiscence research, organised by the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland.

“Those at the conference were engaged by our presentation, but they wondered how it would work with time constraints of an acute hospital,” explains O’Rourke.

“It’s an organisational issue really. We’ve got an information technology department at the hospital. We’ve got a room and we’ve got porters who can bring the patients to the group. The sessions have given us a new way to help these patients communicate more,” says O’Rourke.

Reminiscence sessions have become a popular form of group therapy for older people in long-stay units throughout Ireland. In the standard format, photographs and objects from the past are used as starting points for discussion. The aim is to prompt conversation and encourage patients to reminisce about their earlier lives.

“I’m not saying that YouTube should replace this form of reminiscence therapy, but it is a valuable tool that can be used as an adjunct,” explains O’Rourke. “It’s an electronic memory bank that is a flexible way of accessing memories.” O’Rourke and Tobin have established the “Silver Surfers playlist” on YouTube that can be accessed by any other group who wants to use it.

But, what happens if watching old movies and news clips from the past make the patients remember sad times? “We will just acknowledge it and talk through it if it happens. Watching the sinking of the Titanic and Vera Lynn singing during wartime has brought up sad memories in the group which we have shared. But we also find that the patients draw support from each other.”

O’Rourke is so enthusiastic about the project that she hopes to do a study comparing how language skills and communication ability of dementia patients in the reminiscence therapy YouTube group compares with those who don’t participate in such a group.

“I think staff in nursing homes could train students and volunteers to run sessions using YouTube which would also help intergenerational communication,” she adds.