I have finished my first week on the new job as an activity coordinator for people with dementia and I have been reflecting on mindful and contemplative activities for those experiencing cognitive decline.
The mindfulness movement is making its way to homes, schools, workplaces, hospitals and many other arenas. Originating from the practice of Buddhism, contemporary mindfulness encourages the art of contemplation amongst people from all walks of life whether or not they have any religious or spiritual beliefs. Contemplative living is a way in which you can explore your behaviour, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions through expressive practices such as writing, drawing, yoga, meditation, gardening, walking, knitting, running and mindful movement (amongst many other mediums!). It is important to mention that the practices which one finds contemplative are very personal and differ from person to person.
My health psychology research and work as an exercise practitioner, yoga and pilates teacher underpins my approach to work. I encourage the practice of contemplation when delivering any activity.
By mindfully attending to the present moment people are better able to support themselves in cultivating a sense of self by balancing the body and mind, which in turn nurtures a sense of well-being.
It is this experience of well-being that motivates me on a personal and professional level. What is it that a person needs to support their life journey? Can contemplating one’s inner experience strengthen their ability to take an objective view of their lived reality? Do mindful and contemplative practices help a person connect to their lived experience and does taking a compassionate approach encourage a sense of acceptance of the here and now? It is these types of questions I ask myself when designing practices and activities to help people explore and develop.
A popular mindfulness-based intervention is known as Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) which integrates mindfulness meditation and yoga (2) has been used for many different conditions such as Post traumatic stress disorder, emotional regulation and cognitive decline. In light of my new job I have considered the role of mindfulness (and contemplative practices including yoga) for people experiencing cognitive impairment. It may at first instance sound counter intuitive to underpin activities for people who are cognitively impaired with mindfulness as some question whether a person with a damaged brain can be mindful. However, I argue that mindful and contemplative approaches are more to do with how you consider what it is to be the person by acknowledging their mindful experience regardless of their brain health. I believe very few people will argue whether a person with cognitive decline or impairment are still experiencing what it is for them to be ‘I’, the ‘for-me-ness’ that makes them (and us) a human being. By embracing this paradigm, we can carefully consider what it means to deliver and receive contemplative practice. If we are approaching an activity with the notion of inviting the person to the present moment as an opportunity to just ‘be’ from a place of non-judgement, we can encourage a curious enquiry to that moment. For example, a person experiencing a cognitive impairment may present symptoms of anxiety when unsure of their current situation. A mindful and contemplative approach to support this person through their symptoms may be to encourage a breathing exercise.
A recent book focusing specifically on yoga for dementia (3) highlights the many benefits of breathing exercises for people experiencing cognitive impairment. A key observation for example was the influence of breathwork on communication by way of breathing together and noticing the breath synchronise and creating sounds together. All of which help with physical and mental relaxation as well as a sense of connection.
Whilst research is relatively sparse for mindfulness in the dementia population, recent evidence supports the idea that activities and exercises which are committed to compassion and self-compassion may add value for the person in terms of their subjective well-being .
It is therefore a key element of my professional practice to conduct myself in a way that supports a person’s self-compassion and do my utmost to improve their quality of life and well-being.
If you would like a copy of a short mindful exercise to practice yourself or with someone else, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org..
(1) Berk, L., Warmenhoven, F., van Os, J., & van Boxtel, M. (2018). Mindfulness training for people with dementia and their caregivers: rationale, current research, and future directions. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 982
(2) Farhang, M., Miranda-Castillo, C., Rubio, M., & Furtado, G. (2019). Impact of mind-body interventions in older adults with mild cognitive impairment: a systematic review. International psychogeriatrics, 1-24.
(3) Plahay, T. (2018). Yoga for Dementia: A Guide for People with Dementia, their Families and Caregivers. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.