We've previously discussed on this blog the potential memory-preserving benefit of listening to familiar music for seniors with Alzheimer's disease or other dementia spectrum disorders, and how memory care specialists are increasingly turning to music therapy as a method for promoting the conservation of cognitive function.
But what about familiar movies and TV shows? Could watching these trigger deep memories and help to jog recognition? Some experts believe that they can.
Visual and auditory stimuli are both processed and recorded in similar fashion.
For most people, they are inextricably linked in the long-term memory. And listening to auditory stimuli is linked to emotional recall, too— this is the basis of music therapy. So, watching a familiar old film, one with easily recognized dialogue and a classic soundtrack or score, can yield the same sort of benefit for a senior suffering from dementia.
Watching familiar movies or shows with regularity may help a dementia sufferer to conserve long-term memory or even stimulate conversation with loved ones.
So what movies or shows work best for seniors with dementia?
Musicals can be an excellent option for Alzheimer's sufferers. The combination of lively action, upbeat mood and familiar, sing-a-long scores can hold attention without becoming frustratingly hard to follow. Movies like The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain, or White Christmas at holiday time are wonderful choices.
TV shows that rely less on plot and more on the action on screen to capture viewers' interest also work well. Musical programs like re-runs of The Lawrence Welk Show or Soul Train or newer talent-based competition shows like American Idol can be easy even for those with moderate dementia to follow.
Slapstick comedies like The Benny Hill Show and old Abbott and Costello movies are visually stimulating and light on plot, so they are also good choices.
Perhaps even better are serial comedy shorts, like The Three Stooges, Our Gang (aka "The Little Rascals") and the Keystone Cops, or old sci-fi serials, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, because each episode is action-oriented and typically under ten minutes in length. A senior with dementia can watch a single episode if his or her attention span is shortened or can string together a marathon of episodes, as he or she can tolerate viewing.
Even classic cartoons can be entertaining and beneficial to seniors who are dealing with dementia. Warner Brothers shorts (Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) offer plenty of visual gags and familiar music, but they do depend more on quick-timed dialogue quips than their Disney or MGM (Tom and Jerry) counterparts, so you might shade more toward visually-based comedy.
30-minute animated TV shows like The Flintstones or The Jetsons are perfect, as are short, familiar sitcoms like The Honeymooners, Mr. Ed, I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show. A show like The Simpsons, which uses more sarcastic humor, probably isn't as good a viewing choice.
Animated Disney movies like Lady and the Tramp, Robin Hood, The Sword in the Stone, 101 Dalmatians and Beauty and the Beast can be beneficial, too, but be careful — some Disney movies (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Bambi and even Fantasia) feature scenes with violent or disturbing images that can be counterproductive (see below).
Choose movies and shows that are light-hearted and that don't depict violence or death are preferable.
High drama and tragedy can easily upset an Alzheimer's or dementia sufferer. You'll want to steer clear of action movies, romantic tragedies, suspense films, thrillers and horror films. Even classic black and white movies like Dracula or Frankenstein have enough disconcerting, creepy imagery to upset a vulnerable senior.
Choose shows that have few characters and minimal subplots.
Again, the easier to follow, the better. A show that throws a lot of characters and dialogue into the mix can be confusing, disorienting and frustrating for a viewer with dementia. You also want to avoid shows that rely on narrative arcs played out over a series of episodes.
Remember, for the dementia sufferer, each new episode often seems like the first episode of the series. A person may not remember from day to day— or even hour to hour— what he or she saw last, so subtext and narrative arcs don't make sense.
Watching TV or movies together can be a good way to spend quality time with your ailing loved one.
This takes the impetus off you to converse and takes the pressure off your loved one. Sometimes, a TV show or movie may queue a remote memory and spark a conversation.
Until we develop a better understanding of the causes of cognitive disorders and develop more effective ways of treating Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, auditory and visual therapy are one of the few, somewhat effective ways we have to help aging loved ones preserve their memories.