Watching Nature DVDs may help to reduce anxiety in dementia patients

Published on: 24 November 2015

When the sun dips behind the horizon older adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease often display symptoms of increased restlessness and confusion, this psychological condition is known as Sundowning. Dr Craig Knight, Honorary Research Fellow at the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, is working in partnership with Somerset Care and video production company Calmer by Nature to play DVDs of the British countryside to residents with dementia to discover whether nature scenes have a positive impact on anxiety levels and whether they can help to reduce symptoms of sundowning.

During a three month period, the research team compared two care homes run by Somerset Care.  The first in Burnham-on-Sea hosted the experiment, the second in Williton acted as the control.  In Burnham, staff played one of two nature DVDs, produced by Calmer by Nature, in one of two television lounges (the other TV lounge played standard television programmes).

Dr Knight and his team asked care workers to keep a record of residents’ anxiety levels using a short interactive questionnaire. The results showed that on average, during the first three weeks of the study, anxiety levels amongst Burnham residents were 19.2 per cent lower than amongst residents at the Williton home.  

At the same time, the residents in Burnham-on-Sea were showing an active preference for the nature DVDs over their usual soap opera favourites. During this period the Calmer by Nature DVDs were, on average 127 per cent more popular than the residents’ usual television favourites.  

However, over the course of the study the effects of the DVDs wore off. By the last three weeks of the experiment the situation had almost entirely reversed with the DVDS becoming, on average, 64 per cent less popular than the standard television programmes showing elsewhere in the residents’ home. Some residents actively avoided the DVDs as they had seen them before. Noticeable as the study drew to its close there were no significant differences in residents’ anxiety levels between the two homes.

Results from Dr Knight’s research suggest that watching nature DVDs has a positive short to medium term impact on the reduction of anxiety levels in residents experiencing sundowning; an effect that wears off as time progresses. Qualitative evidence from the staff at the home suggests that playing nature scenes may also have topical benefits, by helping to calm stressed residents in their own rooms.

Dr Knight is enthusiastic about the results of this study and positive about the opportunities for further research. Dr Knight said “This simple, entirely non-invasive piece of work suggests that it may be possible to effectively tackle Sundowning. If we finesse our toolkit, it seems plausible that older adults with dementia may be able to look forward to increased social interaction, with fewer demands on care staff and an improved quality of life over the longer term.  And all this without recourse to drugs - what’s not to like?”

Dr Knight is looking to concentrate on the use of video to encourage a long-term positive effect on anxiety levels. If funding is available, he will look to apply an identity focused approach where television viewing will be selected according to how residents see themselves. For example a resident who used to be a schoolteacher could choose to watch a DVD depicting children in a classroom; a group of residents might elect to watch music from a meaningful era; while staff could use selected video to engage residents’ otherwise restless attention. It is anticipated that this personal approach might result in long-lasting reductions in stress measures.

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