Ecumen Pilot Study Shows Light Therapy Helps Reduce Dementia Symptoms

Results of a pilot study by Ecumen show that light therapy can improve nighttime sleep and reduce agitation among residents with dementia.

Results of a pilot study by Ecumen show that light therapy can improve nighttime sleep and reduce agitation among residents with dementia, who often spend their nights awake and their days asleep. 

The study was conducted at three sites— Ecumen Parmly LifePointes in Chisago City, Minn., Ecumen Detroit Lakes and Ecumen-managed Grand Village in Grand Rapids, Minn.  The light therapy program ran from April to December, 2015, under a $29,800 grant from the LeadingAge Innovations Fund.

 At the three sites, bright light tablets were placed in memory care residents’ rooms and in common areas where small group activities are held.  Residents were exposed to the bright lights on average 30 minutes a day during Daylight Savings Time and one hour after Daylight Savings Time.

“We’re very encouraged by the results,” said Sonya DeSmith, an Ecumen Quality Improvement Nurse who supervised the study.  “Our sample size was small, but based on the data and the anecdotal observations by our nurses, we plan to promote the therapy across all our sites.  We view this as another tool in the tool box of evidence-based, non-drug interventions for residents with dementia.”

The pilot study showed an almost 60 percent reduction in episodes of sleep disturbance and 32 percent fewer behavioral episodes, compared baseline measures.  Also, the use of antipsychotic medications decreased by 11 percent.  Residents who participated in the study showed no adverse effects from the exposure to bright lights.

Roberta Alzen, a nurse manager at Grand Village, is a big believer in light therapy.  Her mother-in-law, a resident at Grand Village, was part of the pilot study and showed dramatic improvement. “She’s the poster person for light therapy,” Roberta says.

Her mother-in-law came to Grand Village from an assisted living community where she had been heavily medicated on high doses of a powerful antipsychotic drug and two other psychotropic drugs.  She was showing classic dementia symptoms — sleeping during the day, wandering at night and being generally distraught.

After a few days of light therapy, she started going to bed early and sleep through the night. “I can’t explain how it works,” Roberta says.  “But I love the program.  It’s great.”

Roberta says in her experience administering light therapy, it tends to work best for people in the early stages of dementia. She’s hoping it will be used more broadly and was thrilled recently when a resident was admitted with a doctor’s order for light therapy — which the doctor called a “happy light.”

The Ecumen light therapy project will be incorporated into the Ecumen Awakenings™ initiative, a care program that emphasizes managing dementia without highly sedating drugs.  Residents, their families, doctors and care staff all work together to replace traditional drug therapies with individualized techniques that reduce anxiety and difficult behaviors while improving quality of life.  Behavioral changes already are carefully monitored and documented, and measurement of the effects of the light therapy will be incorporated into the ongoing programs.

LeadingAge, a national association of nonprofit aging services providers, awards Innovations Fund grants to nonprofit providers of aging services for projects that “have a demonstrable impact on residents, clients, families, employees or the broader community, and that have the potential for replication.” The grant to Ecumen falls in the category of Innovative Dementia Care Programs “that pursue promising strategies for improving the quality of life and quality of care for people with dementia.”