A new interactive light game for people with mid- to late-stage dementia is being trialled in UK care homes
Doris, 90, is prodding at a colourful image of a beach ball projected on to the table in front of her. She sends it wheeling off towards Don, who sweeps at it, bouncing it back. William taps at the image while Cathy watches intently, occasionally reaching out a hand. Doris giggles, Don grins, Cathy smiles gently. William is concentrating hard.
This is significant. All four are “difficult” or “withdrawn” residents with dementia at Care UK’s Oak House care home in Slough, Berkshire. They are playing with a Tovertafel (Magic Table), a series of interactive light games specifically designed for people with mid- to late-stage dementia, which has newly arrived in the UK.
The staff are smiling too. “It’s nice to see engagement and eyes lighting up,” says care home manager Julie Bignell. “Doris can be very difficult and she’s having a lovely time. And it’s hard to persuade Don to sit down. Now he is, and he is really animated playing with that ball.”
“William gets very angry and aggressive,” says his care worker, “so to get him to sit calmly for this long is great.”
The game changes, bringing flowers floating across the table. Lily strokes one of them and it grows into a huge bright bloom. She starts talking about flowers. Then goldfish come swimming along and Lily makes them appear to swim up her arm. “My mother would love this,” she says. “Where can I get one? Can I put down a deposit?”
Tovertafel was developed in the Netherlands and has taken the region by storm. Launched only in March 2015, there are already 500 Tovertafels installed in care homes in the Benelux countries. It got its name from someone with dementia who announced when trying it that “this is a magic table”.
The game has been brought to the UK by John Ramsay, who gave up his job as a corporate lawyer to do this. His father was diagnosed with early-onset dementia when he was 12. “Towards the end,” Ramsay says, “there was nothing I could do to engage him – nothing. Having Tovertafel, something we could do together, would have made such a difference to me as well as to him. It gives me goosebumps when I see residents with grandchildren they’ve been unable to communicate with playing together.”
Tovertafel was developed by PhD student Hester Le Riche, who wanted to create something to stimulate activity – physical, mental and social – in people with later stage dementia. Few products are designed for them and they mostly become very passive. Some care homes do have sensory rooms but they require one-on-one supervision, and many residents find them too much and won’t go in.
Le Riche wanted to make something that would be in the care home’s main area, that could be done in groups and that required no special supervision. She soon settled on light as the perfect medium: energising, attention-grabbing, clean and completely safe.
After spending many months in care homes (“which sometimes almost made me cry”), following overworked staff (“who often didn’t even have time to talk to residents”), and sitting for hours beside people with dementia, Le Riche tried out all sorts of different images and activities. “The residents designed the games in the end,” she says, “we just watched, listened and laughed with them.”
Tovertafel now consists of a portable white box hung from a hook in the ceiling projecting interactive images on to any surface below. “It does not require initiative,” she says. “It invites reaction.”
Le Riche read the literature on the neuropathology of dementia and on the science of play, establishing that people in the later stages of the disease can still experience three primary outcomes of play: sensation, relaxation and reminiscence. Tovertafel’s eight different games (with more on the way) are specifically designed to elicit all three.
“You can’t go wrong,” Le Riche says. “If nobody touches the beach ball, it bounces off the edge of the projection area. If minds wander, there is always something to come back to. When you have dementia, you are constantly losing abilities, so it is important to be proud of what you can do.”
Le Riche and Ramsay have recently launched a version of Tovertafel for people with learning disabilities. The hardware is identical but the games are different – more intense, more directly educational. And from next spring there will be a set of games, also expertly designed, for children with autism. Le Riche is excited about this. At one test session, she says, there was a child who was never able to play with other kids because, “whatever he got hold of he threw. You can’t throw light so Tovertafel allowed him to play with other children for the first time.”
“Everyone has a right to play,” Ramsay adds, “we all need a bit of fun.”
- Residents’ names have been changed