Laughter is the best medicine: Elder clowns being used to treat dementia

By Amanda Ferguson

A Toronto researcher is proving laughter is the best medicine by bringing in clowns to help seniors in the grips of dementia.

Toronto Rehab scientist Dr. Pia Kontos made the conclusion after watching highly-trained therapy clowns, called elder clowns, interact with dementia residents in long-term care homes over a two-year period.

“We found that after the residents interacted with the clowns for 12 weeks that there was a significant reduction in their neuro-psychiatric symptoms,” Kontos said.

The senior researcher found clown therapy was just as effective as medication in bringing down aggression levels in seniors with dementia  – and in some cases – patients who were considered non-verbal began reacting or communicating with the clowns in small but significant ways.

“It’s always those little surprises that catch me off-guard and surprise me,” said Heather Annis, a therapeutic clown who goes by the name “Peachy.”

The elder clowns underwent intensive training in Montreal to learn how to interact with patients who may not be able to communicate due to their disease.

During the study, the therapy clowns would spend a half day in Toronto long-term care homes, going room to room, interacting with residents. The interactions would last anywhere between 30 seconds to 30 minutes – based on how that person was reacting.

“We’re looking at all kinds of non-verbal clues,” said therapeutic elder clown Kathleen LeRoux, aka “Dizzy.” “Whether a person turns towards us or turns away from us, whether their breathing increases or decreases, whether they look relaxed, whether they look energized.”

Kontos says there are major differences from elder clowns and the ones found in pediatric wards.

While pediatric clowns’ costuming may be whimsical and bright, elder-clowns are often more subdued in appearance, wearing vintage outfits, evoking memories of the past.

“I thought, intuitively, I sensed this would be pretty magical and it was,” Kontos said.

Kontos has published the results of her study and hopes it will result in more funding to put clowns in every long-term care home in the province as part of a comprehensive care plan.

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