Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Entertainment for Persons with Dementia

My mother, 88, with moderate dementia has come to live with us. One of our challenges is finding appropriate entertainment for her, i.e. television and movies. We've discovered that shows with troubling themes or events can enter her mind, and cause her a day or more of anxiety. For example, after watching Gone With the Wind, she became worried that she was losing her home. After her aide watched a crime drama channel for several hours, she had anxiety about being involved in a robbery. So, this entry is dedicated to what's working and what we've learned.

First, a summary of types of shows

1. Ambient TV / Video Postcards
Hidden Gems. When narrative is too engaging, and we need something calming to focus upon and change mindsets. Example, impending anxiety state, full-on anxiety state, low-energy time, before bedtime wind-down. Nice to have on in the background, can be enjoyed in silence, or as a conversation starter.

2. Nature Shows
Same as above, but when the energy level is high enough to really engage. Simple narrative, slow, beautiful, enriching.

3. News
NO LOCAL NEWS. Its too full of accidents, murders, beatings, child-abuse, and other general complaining. National news seems to be okay, depending upon the day's news. Mom likes the family time of watching it together.

4. Reality Shows
Nope. Can't think of one that she'll enjoy. I even avoided the obvious super-trashy ones and tried "Under the Gunn" but Mom didn't have enough frame of reference for this to be interesting.

5. Movies & TV shows

See breakdown below. Her energy level needs to be high enough to engage in a narrative.

6. Silent Films
Has all the things we need. The plots are simple and easy to follow, the characters are relatable, the acting is writ-large, the title screens with large text help too. Downside is that if she's doze-watching (you'll either know what this means, or you won't), she misses the plot.

  • A small number of characters 
  • Characters that her generation can relate to 
  • A linear plot or narrative
  • A somewhat slow pace 
  • Clear dialogue
  • Bad vibes (anger, yelling, arguing, violence, gritty dramas, snarky talk shows, the news) 
  • Scary life events as plot points (losing your home, being robbed, being attacked, being destitute, being murdered) 
  • Violence of any kind to animals or humans 
  • Too much activity, noise, craziness
  • Rapidly shifting scenes
  • Rapid dialogue or accents
  • Big, explosive special effects
  • Shifting between multiple plot lines

TV & Movies that Worked

Nature Shows
Lately, movies and TV shows have too much plot, and she has a hard time following. However, she can follow nature shows and they are inherently visually stimulating, interesting and slow paced. Occasional violence.  Loving David Attenborough's The Life of Mammals. Watching these on despite the annoying interruptions and occasional signal failure.

Ambient TV 

When silence is too boring, a nature show is too engaging, and a movie is too stimulating, there's ambient TV. Hulu and ATT U-verse have a few, but The Window Channel on Amazon Prime is tops. 30 minute scenes of beautiful places in the world in HD. Delightful. Titles include "Harmony" "Mountain Streams". ATT U-verse also has channel 1800 which has half-hour segments entitled "Furry Friends", "Sunrises and Sunsets", and the 

She has loved this for years, and even though it always starts with a murder, it doesn't seem to worry her. Thank you Hulu for having all seasons. <Update: Seems that the murders and police are too much. Must use Monk more sparingly.>

Mrs. Brown 
Judi Dench plays a grieving Queen Victoria. Billy Connolly plays a wild Scotsman who protects her and irritates her into getting out more. Mom related to both characters, and their quiet, emotion-packed dialogue.

Girl With a Pearl Earring 
Beautiful and slow, small number of characters whom you can understand.

Mary Poppins 
Of course. Over time, Mary Poppins has been responsible for a total reset from distant, disengaged, anxious Mom to engaged, happy, laughing, talking Mom.

Same as Mary Poppins - delightful, engaging, irresistible.

A Christmas Story 
Because she's seen it so many times? Its pretty wholesome, and easy to follow.

White Christmas
Back in the day when men were men and girls were cabaret acts. I personally can never watch this again.

The Rankin-Bass Christmas stories 
(Rudolph, Santa Claus)

To Catch a Thief
Pretty scenery, pretty people, easy plot.

Winnie the Pooh 
That was worth two happy watchings. We've returned to it a few times, and she especially likes the songs.

Return of the Pink Panther
Got real belly laughs out of Mom. Then we tried The Pink Panther (dud), and The Revenge of the Pink Panther (got some laughs, but a bit violent), and On the Trail of the Pink Panther (got some laughs despite the choppy plot).

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (movie)
Got good laughs.

Golden Girls (TV)
An old favorite.

Snow White (original Disney animated feature)
Engaging, but not for a high anxiety day.

The Sound of Music

This worked well, although it is long.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
This worked well, Mom seems to really enjoy the musicals.

I remember my parents watching this, so maybe it is familiar territory. Mom enjoys it and probably because the characters are exaggerated, everything is telegraphed large, but the plots are really simple.

The Goldbergs
Recognizable time period, setting, family dynamic. Funny, with simple, straight plots.

The Good Earth
She loves this story; apparently she and my sister watched it a lot years ago. Despite the themes of poverty, sexism, spousal neglect, and a plague of locusts, she really enjoyed watching it.

The Roosevelts (Ken Burns documentary)
Lots of things were recognizable to her and she seemed to really enjoy remembering, until the episode about the depression. It upset her and we had to turn it off.

The National Parks (Ken Burns documentary)
Just a wonderful series, particularly the first 2 episodes. She keys into this and watches and listens with rapt attention.

Sleeping Beauty

Movies and Shows that Didn't Work

Gone With the Wind 
Despite this being one of her favorites over the years, it seemed to cause anxiety. War, slavery, difficult childbirth, murder, fear of losing your home, death of a child, losing your loved one.

Downton Abbey 
Too bad, but she didn't care for it. Accents? Can't relate? Don't know why.

Love Actually
A large cast and swiftly cut, interlocking scenes just can't be followed.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
I thought we had it made with this one, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but she lost interest.

Monarch of the Glen
Turns out they're about to lose their house too. Otherwise, this series is delightful; simple plots, funny characters, beautiful landscapes. The Scottish accents may be difficult for some.

Black Beauty
After we started watching it, I started questioning the treatment of animals during the making of. I ended up reading ahead on the plot on Wikipedia and turned it off as soon as Beauty and Ginger are traded to the snooty family. I see no call for showing Mom an hour of animal abuse even if there is a happy ending.

Miss Potter
A delightful movie, simple plot, well acted. However, someone dies, so use with caution.

Toy Story, Up
No interest in these. 

Good Shows That She Watched But I Can't Tell If She Really Liked

A Philadelphia Story
The Importance of Being Earnest
The King's Speech
Shakespeare in Love
Mansfield Park 
Big Top Pee Wee
Serena (original)
The Secret Garden
Nanny McPhee (can you tell I'm an anglophile?)
My Fair Lady
Modern Family
Wheel of Fortune
Sherlock Holmes (the Jeremy Brett version)
Cinderella (2015)

Shows We're Going To Try
Jeeves and Wooster <Update: Hard to tell; will try again later>
Sense & Sensibility <thanks, Tennille>

Suggestions are welcome!


  1. Original Parent Trap. Little Women? Sense and sensibility? Sound of Music?

  2. Good thoughts! Thanks :-) Afraid of Little Women tho because Beth dies. I think I'll put on S&S right now.