Fighting Dementia with Effective Social Programs

Dementia is a shift in the way a person experiences the world.” – Dr. Allen Power

It seems almost a given these days that at some point in later life, dementia in some form will impact our appreciation of life. Studies are showing that as the baby boomers age, and we live longer, the number of cases rise.

So how should society react to that growing number? Medicate them and shut them away?

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” said Gail Hinchliffe, president of United Active Living Communities in Calgary. “When someone decides they want to move into one of our communities, we focus more on improving their lives through socialization, community, friendships and integration into the everyday activities here. Medication to control behaviour and isolation aren’t even considerations.”

The Case For Social Programs

Paintings at United Active LivingGail and her staff agree with the work Dr. Al Power and others are doing to change how we see those with dementia. Power has become a leader in the field of dementia treatment by arguing against depending on medication to control symptoms, and working more towards a social solution that integrates those with dementia into active communities with memory care and social programs that support them rather than shut them away.

“There are things that we do that diminish the worth of the person,” Dr. Power said in a presentation in Australia recently. “We take people whose view of the world is changing and fit them into programs based on our needs and our schedules. And we expect them to fit and when they don’t fit, we medicate them.”

Dr. Rob Winningham, chair of the Psychology Division at Western Oregon University, writing in the Journal on Active Aging, notes that a holistic approach is needed to improve memory and reduce the chances of dementia. “To maintain or even improve memory ability in older adulthood, we need to use a holistic approach that includes factors such as cognitive exercise, physical exercise, proper nutrition, adequate social engagement, healthy sleep habits, and reduced stress.”

United Active Living bases its philosophy on social interaction rather than medication. Care is taken to determine a person’s interests, then a cognitive enhancement program is developed.

“Everyone has a strength even when other aspects are failing. There is still a lot of life to live. We find out what still connects them and anchors them and then we work on that,” said Bridget Coulter, who oversees United’s United Minds program, formerly called Memory Select. “It doesn’t take much to find out what their passion is and then we focus on how we continue to support that passion and those strengths that they still have remaining.”

The Emphasis is on Lifelong Learning

“We feel strongly that there’s more to our later years that just what a medical model can provide,” said Gail. “It’s more than just getting your medications on time. So that’s why we have a holistic approach to what we do. There’s emphasis on providing opportunities for lifelong learning, for creative expression. Whether that be the art studio, being involved in dance, in poetry and having lots of opportunities for social engagement. Whether that’s within the residence, or in the greater, broader community. It is really all about living well in your community.”

Research, as well as experience gained from the United Active Living experience, confirms that no matter how old a person is, they can gain from new experiences whether it’s strength training or an intellectual pursuit. “These findings are revolutionary because it means that really there is no end to how many ways we can stimulate our minds and start to build new neural pathways. And as long as we can do that, the losses are greatly diminished,” said Bridget.

“When you get to a certain stage in life every day you are faced with perhaps a reality of another decline, so the power of being able to learn something new, to be able to express yourself in a new way is just so powerful. It’s not so much how long I’m going to live, but how well I’m going to live,” said Gail.

Related articles:

Minding the Mind

This World is But a Canvas for Our Imagination

Healthy Activities for Healthy Aging 

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Imagine! Live the life you've always dreamed of at one of our United Active Living communities. Please contact us today to learn more about our two communities Garrison Green or Fish Creek

Do you know a friend or family member who could benefit from living in a United community? Send them a link to our website or blog, or arrange a tour. We are happy to help! 

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United is changing the conversation around aging. From our innovative United Minds (memory care) program to professionally staffed art studios and extensive creative programming, our communities offer more than you might expect. If you have questions or topics you would like us to cover in future blogs, let us know.


  • Al Power, MD says:

    Love it!! Thank you so much for your kind mention. I am thrilled to see your organisation focusing on inclusion, meaningful engagement, and lifelong learning for all. I wish you all the best in your important work, and hope to get back to Calgary one of these days.

  • Great article. Would love to read more about the research into how this kind of programming slows memory loss. Tried the link but didn’t work. Looks interesting though.

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