U.Va. Students Reach Out to Community Members with Alzheimer's Disease

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:

January 25, 2011 — Helping some local residents with Alzheimer's disease hang on to their memories for a little longer is the goal of a group of University of Virginia students who are volunteering at a Charlottesville assisted living facility.

Every week while the University is in session, 16 students from the Curry School of Education's communications disorders master's degree program are visiting with residents of the RoseWood Village at Greenbrier Drive Innovations memory care unit. Under the supervision of professors Jane Hilton and Randall Robey, they spend an hour in activities and conversations that stimulate residents to talk about their memories.

"We started visiting during the fall semester and first asked about their interests and personal history," said Hilton, director of clinical services for U.Va.'s Speech-Language-Hearing Center, which is located in the Curry School's Sheila C. Johnson Center for Human Services.

Pairs of students are assigned to visit the same resident each week. Some residents recognize their students after a couple of visits, Hilton said, and their faces light up when the students arrive, even when they do not remember students' names.

"The floor is transformed into a buzzing, energetic space," said Caroline Even, RoseWood's activity director. "Students and residents are clustered throughout, sitting at tables, visiting in armchairs, or spending time quietly in residents' rooms. This one-on-one attention is really meaningful for the residents and provides them with an opportunity to share themselves with a younger generation while enjoying the students' energy, enthusiasm, and genuine interest."

Activities are often personalized to each client, and students bring memory aids such as photographs and small objects that may prompt residents to access stored memories.

"With our client, we tend to focus on iconic events in history," student volunteer Perry Ellis said. "We also ask lots of open-ended questions so that the client may guide the conversation, such as, 'Tell us about where you grew up,' and 'Tell us about your family.'"

Another student volunteer, Heather Parrott, said that her client was formerly an engineer. "In one session, we brought Science Digest and Popular Mechanics, which we looked at together while I read some of the articles. The client was so happy that he continuously thanked us for thinking of him."

In December, two of the students assisted a resident in choosing and wrapping a Christmas gift he purchased at RoseWood's holiday bazaar for his wife, Even remembered. It was sugar-cookie scented bubble bath. "They smelled the bubble bath with him, then ate sugar cookies and compared the sensory experiences."

The students' most important task is to stimulate clients to continue using their language skills and to encourage them to access their memories. "Although there is no treatment for dementia, because dementia is a progressive disease that affects memory, thinking and behavior, it is imperative that we keep the clients using their brains." Parrot said. "Talking about past experiences or learning new information from newspapers, magazines or games helps clients use their brain and may prevent a faster decline in cognitive ability."

"These visits are benefiting our residents immensely," said Diane Johnson, executive director of RoseWood Village at Greenbrier Drive. "The staff reports that residents are more alert and even eat better after the visits."

Hilton and her protégés are just as positive about their experiences. "It's a wonderful experience for students," she said. "They not only meet and befriend clients, but they see firsthand the changes over time in the progression of the disease. They need to see how quickly changes can happen and what happens."

In order to receive certification from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the students must be prepared to work with clients across the lifespan from infants to elderly adults. As future speech pathologists, they may have opportunities to treat older adult clients who have a variety of disorders that impair communication, including language, memory and cognitive disorders, as well as swallowing problems, such as dysphagia – another symptom of Alzheimer's.

Robey, who directs the communication disorders program, and Hilton also supervise treatment of clients with communications disorders of all ages through the Speech-Language-Hearing Center. Clients of the center can receive evaluations and receive treatment for language, speech, swallowing and hearing disorders.

— by Lynn Bell

Media Contact

Rebecca P. Arrington

Assistant Director of Media Relations Office of University Communications