While dementia is usually characterized by memory loss, seniors with this condition also experience agitation, depression and abnormal sleep schedules. Typically, these symptoms are controlled using medications; however, the results of two recent studies find that light therapy reduces agitation, depression and helps normalize sleep schedules for seniors with dementia.
The Ecumen Study
Ecumen is a company dedicated to assisting seniors by empowering them to live rich, full lives. The company has numerous senior housing communities that span across seven states. Ecumen conducted a pilot study to determine if light therapy could be beneficial for seniors with dementia: Individuals with dementia often sleep during the day; consequently, they remain awake throughout the night. For this reason, the Ecumen study concentrated on determining whether light therapy could improve residents’ sleep schedules as well as reduce their agitation.
The participants in the Ecumen study were seniors with dementia residing in three of its own senior housing communities: Ecumen Parmly LifePointes, Chisago City, Minn., Ecumen-managed Grand Village, Grand Rapids, Minn. and Ecumen Detroit Lakes.
Study Specifics and Results
Ecumen’s light therapy program was conducted at all three locations from April to Dec. of 2015. Memory care residents at all three of the aforementioned sites were exposed to bright lights via tablets. These tablets were placed in areas where small group activities took place, as well as in each participating resident's room. The length of exposure to the light tablets varied from approximately one-hour a day (after Daylight Savings Time) and 30 minutes a day (during Daylight Savings Time).
When compared to baseline measures, the study results are promising: The study indicates a nearly 60 percent reduction in the number of sleep disturbances participants experienced; furthermore, behavioral episodes decreased by more than 30 percent. In addition, antipsychotic medication use decreased by 11 percent. Additionally, study participants suffered no adverse effects related to their exposure to the bright lights.
Roberta Alzen Nurse Manager at Ecumen’s Grand Village Community
Roberta Alzen is a nurse manager at Ecumen’s Grand Village Community in Grand Rapids, Minn. Alzen states that her mother-in-law resides at Grand Village and was a participant in the light therapy study. According to Alzen, her mother-in-law has shown dramatic improvement.
Alzen states that her mother-in-law originally resided in another assisted living community. While living there, she was heavily medicated. She was taking high doses of an antipsychotic drug as well as two more psychotropic medications.
Her mother-in-law displayed the classic symptoms seen in seniors with dementia, she slept all day and wandered around all night, usually feeling distraught. Alzen states that after several days of light therapy, her mother-in-law started retiring early and she was able to sleep through the night. Alzen says that she cannot explain how the therapy works, but she loves the program.
Light Therapy More Beneficial for Seniors Still in the Early Stages of Dementia
Alzen states that in her experience as a nurse administering light therapy, she finds it seems to work the best for seniors who are still in the early stages of dementia. She is hopeful that light therapy will begin being utilized on a broader scale.
Sonya DeSmith supervised this study. She is a Quality Improvement Nurse for Ecumen. DeSmith states that the results of the study are encouraging and that although the sample size was small, the data collected and observations made by the nurses should be helpful as they promote light therapy across all of Ecumen’s senior living communities. DeSmith categorizes light therapy as another evidence-based tool that can be used as a non-drug intervention for seniors with dementia.
The promising results of this study have led to Ecumen adding light therapy to its dementia care program; thus, emphasizing the management of dementia without the use of medications that are designed to sedate the senior.
Commonwealth Care of Roanoke and Radford University Study
Individuals with Seasonal Affective Disorder Use Bright Light Therapy
For years, individuals suffering with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) have benefited from bright light therapy. A lack of sunlight is what causes people to experience SAD. Individuals who have SAD find bright light therapy beneficial in that it assists them in combating conditions like anxiety, depression and insomnia.
As Director of Business Development and Care Innovations and a registered nurse at Commonwealth Care of Roanoke (CCR), Lora Epperly was curious as to whether bright light therapy would help her patients with dementia, just as it helps individuals with SAD. Epperly contacted Lisa L. Onega PhD, RN, and professor at Radford University’s School of Nursing to ask if she would be interested in working with her on this study: Onega accepted the invitation to work with Epperly on this groundbreaking venture.
CCR manages numerous long-term care facilities: Residents at four of these facilities participated in this study.
Study Specifics and Results
Onega conducted the study, which lasted a total of eight-weeks. Using standardized measurements, the study results indicate that bright light therapy reduced the agitation and depression felt by the participants in the test group by more than 50 percent. Participant’s family members also noticed a difference in their loved one’s demeanor.
Light Therapy May Eliminate the Need for Potentially Dangerous Medications
Onega is optimistic that a grant from the National Institutes of Health will spark a nationwide interest in bright light therapy, which will lead to more research on this topic. However, for now, these initial results offer a ray of hope for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bright light therapy may help eliminate the need for potentially dangerous, sometimes fatal medications.
The evidence that supports using light therapy to improve the mood and sleep outcomes for seniors with dementia continues to gain ground; however, to attain optimal results, further research into the intensity of the light, type of lighting and light therapy duration is necessary.