As Elders Rock, Emotional Burden of Dementia Eases

April 25, 1998

Nursing home residents who have dementia can literally rock away their anxiety and depression, nurse researchers have found, simply by rocking back and forth in a rocking chair for about an hour or two a day. Patients who rocked the most in a research study even requested less medication to ease their daily aches and pains, and their balance improved.

Nurses from the University of Rochester School of Nursing presented the work at a meeting of the Eastern Nursing Research Society April 23-25 in Rochester.

"There's the stereotype of older people on a porch happily going back and forth in their rocking chairs," says nurse researcher Nancy Watson. "It turns out that the activity really does bring some peace of mind to many folks.

"It's been very well documented with infants that a gentle repetitive motion has a soothing effect. We've shown that the same is true in an older population that is emotionally distressed."

In a study funded by the New York State Department of Health, Watson studied 25 nursing home residents diagnosed as having dementia, either due to Alzheimer's disease or other causes. Nurses at Kirkhaven, a nursing home in Rochester, closely monitored patient behavior for the six weeks residents rocked and compared it to their behavior during six weeks when the rocking mechanism on the chairs was disabled.

During the weeks they rocked, most residents' psychological and emotional well-being improved, says Watson, an assistant professor in the University's School of Nursing and an expert in gerontological nursing research, an area where the University is ranked among the top 10 nationwide.

"Right away, nursing aides noticed the most dramatic effect: The chair served to calm someone down when he or she was emotionally upset. The aide helped the resident to the chair and got them rocking, and it calmed the patient right down."

In the study, residents rocked for anywhere from half an hour to two and a half hours each day for five days a week. While not all the residents improved, those who rocked the most improved the most, Watson says. "The more they rocked, the better they felt."

Behaviors like crying or expressions of anxiety, tension, and depression dropped in 11 patients, 10 of whom rocked more than 80 minutes a day. Such behaviors fell anywhere from slightly to almost one-third.

Several patients also requested less pain medication during weeks they rocked, Watson says; generally, those who rocked the most asked for pain medication less often, ranging from a very slight reduction to two or three fewer requests per week. Patients who rocked less asked for at least as much pain medication, and sometimes more.

Zealous rockers also improved their balance, a huge concern among the elderly population, where a fall often leads to drastically scaled-back quality of life. Watson says it's possible that the gentle rocking motion helped stimulate the residents' vestibular system, which helps maintain balance.

Residents used platform-style rocking chairs that work like conventional rockers but have a super-stable, immobile base and move back and forth very easily. Aides gradually introduced residents to the chairs, encouraging but not pushing residents to rock.

Watson's co-investigators were Mary Hauptmann, director of nursing at Kirkhaven, and Carol Brink, associate professor of clinical nursing at the University. Also taking part were Bethel Powers, associate professor of nursing; Eileen Root Taillie, project director; Margaret Lash, project nurse; and nurse researcher Thelma Wells, formerly of the University and now at the University of Wisconsin.

Watson says that nursing home staff and loved ones of residents who seem happier and less anxious have been very interested in the research. She says rocking-chair therapy could become an important treatment tool for the approximately 1.6 million people in U.S. nursing homes, more than half of whom suffer from some form of dementia.

"Rocking provides a worthwhile, mild form of exercise for these people," says Watson. "It would be difficult to take every patient for a walk, for instance, but residents can rock themselves, and many are happy to do so, given a little encouragement. This is an easy step to improve the quality of life for people in nursing homes."

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