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New Alzheimer’s therapy developed by WSU prof spreading across US

Three years ago, Wright State University professor Govind Bharwani was given a challenge: Find a way to help people living with Alzheimer’s disease so they are less prone to becoming confused, agitated, withdrawn and falling.

Today, the breakthrough therapy he created has won five national awards, spread to 14 institutions in three states and there is a six-month waiting list for those wishing to implement it.

The therapy works by providing each person with their own “memory box” filled with family photos, books and movies they love and other special items. Videos and music from “soothing libraries” are also selected specifically for the patient and games and puzzles are available to stimulate their brains. The therapy is unique because it is customized for each individual and does not involve the use of drugs.

“This has an impact on their quality of life,” Bharwani said of the program, called “behavior-based ergonomics therapy.” “The purpose of it is to not only benefit the residents but the caregivers, as well.”

It started with a request from the St. Leonard Franciscan Living Community in Centerville for a new way to treat residents with dementia. The community was seeing too many falls among residents and frustration among the staff. Within six months using the new therapy, the rate of falls was reduced by one-third and the use of anti-psychotic medications was cut by 65 percent.

“It made a tremendous difference,” said Terri Walker, director of memory support services.

“The biggest challenge is trying to understand each resident who has dementia,” Walker said. “They can’t express their needs.”

With a sheet on each resident that describes what music, videos, games and other therapies they like best, the staff can easily respond to the first signs of stress and redirect them with the prescribed therapy. For instance, it only took a few minutes for nursing assistant Laura Spain to set resident Naomi up with her favorite video of zoo babies, and Naomi could watch the video for 30 to 60 minutes. After such a therapy session, the patient is typically calmed for four hours, Bharwani said.

“They start eating better, they start sleeping better and they start bathing better,” said Bharwani, an adjunct professor of biomedical engineering.

The therapy is more effective than a group activity, which can work for some patients and not others, but also does not require much one-on-one time from staff, he said. The St. Leonard’s staff has used the therapies 15,000 times since the program was created in 2010. Although the therapy was pioneered in Dayton, it is spreading around the world. In the United States alone, 5.4 million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Wright State is now exploring how the therapy could be used for people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s at home with the university’s neuroscience department, the Alzheimer’s Association and project coordinator Meena Bharwani, who helps implement the program and trains staff with her father.

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