Dementia: Transformation through innovation

Benjamin Surmi
Benjamin Surmi, MsG

*Editor’s note, the 2020 Discovery Alzheimer’s Regional Conference has been rescheduled to June 25, 2020. Please see note below article. 

By: Benjamin Surmi, MsG, Social Gerontologist
Director of People and Culture, Koelsch Communities

We all want real outcomes that are provided by actionable insights. Cutting-edge research points us to practices that work for people living with a diagnosis of dementia. Healthcare and senior living professionals apply this wisdom through innovation – transforming families and communities. 

In this article, we review evidence for five practices. For each practice, we consider an innovation that Aaron and Judy Koelsch have integrated into their family-owned and operated memory care communities.

Personalized Music
Sandra Garrido at Western Sydney University along with several colleagues analyzed the results of 28 different studies. Their research suggests that playlists of music personalized to each individual with dementia may reduce agitation, anxiety, and depression. (1)

Case Study: While creating a playlist for one or two friends with dementia is easy today with iTunes and other services, scaling this process to reach over 1,000 people living with dementia at memory care centers is no easy feat. In 2015, Aaron and Judy Koelsch’s team designed a method that equips residents upon moving into a Koelsch Community with access to multiple devices, all loaded with 30 million songs and, soon after moving in, with a playlist unique to their personality. 

Hearing Support
Researchers at John Hopkins conclude that hearing loss may lead to three times the risk of falling. (2) The risk of dying increases to 54 percent, (3) and, hearing loss has a direct correlation to a three-fold increase in developing dementia. (4)

Case Study: A casual observer notices many residents sleeping through lifelong learning programs in many senior living settings. Often, the reason is an inability to hear clearly. Aaron Koelsch implemented Immersive Listening powered by Eversound® to equip residents and families with wireless headphones to hear one another and to hear facilitators and teachers as though they were right next to them.

John Medina, MD, affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in his book, Brain Rules for Aging Well, reviews scores of research studies to conclude that socialization leads to a decreasing rate of cognitive decline. He remarks, “One intervention showed a cognitive boost in processing speed and working memory with as little as ten minutes of social interaction.” From resilience to the flu, measurable increases in brain volume, prompt wound healing, and reduced inflammation, Dr. Medina outlines the data linking relationships with our health. (5)

Case Study: In their new Urban Garden model of memory care available only in the Puget Sound, Aaron and Judy Koelsch crafted over 22 indoor and outdoor community gathering spaces – a remarkable difference from standard memory care design. These spaces intentionally open doors for genuine friendship. And, Koelsch Communities invests in lifelong learning professionals dedicated solely to memory care – inspiring friendship through two to three simultaneous programs facilitated from morning through dinner every day of the week.

In his developmental molecular biology research, Dr. Medina came across little-known evidence from a robust study on reminiscing conducted in the ‘80s by Ellen Langer, Ph.D., who demonstrated the power of immersive reminiscing to impact health and brain fitness. Dr. Medina writes, “… your brain gives you a reward when you reminisce…. reminiscing activates a neurotransmitter that is involved in learning and motor function…. the stimulation of dopamine in specific areas of the brain is the mechanism behind all this positivity.” (6)

Case Study: Judy Koelsch, JSK Interior Designs, creates reminiscing features in every senior living community she designs. From immersive, multi-sensory old town USA main streets, log cabins, and 50’s kitchens to vintage curios every 50 feet, residents and guests quickly connect with powerful memories. 

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Intensive, Hands-on Training
Over 50,000 European and Asian healthcare professionals have received intensive, hands-on training related to caring for frail elders and those with dementia. Physicians at a French geriatric hospital showed an 88.5 percent decrease in anti-psychotic use after four years of implementation. (7)  Other outcomes have included reduction of so-called “bedbound” symptoms to less than 4 percent and a 60 percent reduction of days in hospital. 

Case Study: With their research turning up no equivalent programs available in the US, Aaron and Judy Koelsch piloted multiple sessions at three Washington Koelsch memory care communities. Taking a look at the outcomes, including stories of residents sleeping again, standing again, engaging in showers after refusing, and residents speaking again, Koelsch was alerted to the effectiveness of this method of training. Currently, Koelsch is the only organization with a mission to implement Humanitude® in the USA.

Timeless Values
In this season of senior living and healthcare evolution, many of us are hungry for innovative new technologies and practices. However, while these can be powerful tools, Aaron Koelsch encourages us to stay focused on the fundamentals of dignity and respect. 

His parents, Alice and Emmet Koelsch, founded one of the USA’s first assisted living communities in the 1970’s in Kelso, WA. They also chose to invest in 24/7 licensed nurses on-site and on-duty. To this day, whether it’s midnight or the middle of the day, nurses are interacting with residents and family members, guiding medically safe decisions and preventing unnecessary emergency room visits.

The legacy Emmett and Alice passed to Aaron and his family is one of shaking someone’s hand while looking them in the eye, doing a job with excellence and without fanfare, writing handwritten thank you notes, and treating people the way you want to be treated. 

To learn more about Aaron and Judy Koelsch’s commitment to dignity and respect and their innovative practices, connect with us at 

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Koelsch Communities is a Start Line Sponsor for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s and Presenting Sponsor for the Discovery Alzheimer’s Regional Conference for healthcare professionals.  Benjamin Surmi, MsG, will be presenting more on the topic of “Global Innovations: Thriving with Dementia” at the conference. The Discovery Alzheimer’s Regional Conference has been rescheduled for Thursday, June 25, 2020. We’re working diligently to ensure the event is very similar to what we had originally planned, and will continue to update you with new information as it becomes available. We are very glad we were able to reschedule this event and are hopeful you will be able to join us! Learn more here. 

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1 Garrido, S., Dunne, L., Chang, E., Perz, J., Stevens, C. J., & Haertsch, M. (2017). The Use of Music Playlists for People with Dementia: A Critical Synthesis. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease: JAD, 60(3), 1129–1142. doi:10.3233/JAD-170612
2 Lin, F. R., & Ferrucci, L. (2012). Hearing loss and falls among older adults in the United States. Archives of internal medicine, 172(4), 369–371. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.728
3 Contrera, K. J., Betz, J., Genther, D. J., & Lin, F. R. (2015). Association of Hearing Impairment and Mortality in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. JAMA otolaryngology– head & neck surgery, 141(10), 944–946. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2015.1762
4 Lin, F. R., & Albert, M. (2014). Hearing loss and dementia – who is listening? Aging & mental health, 18(6), 671-3. Accessed February 2019.
5  Medina, John. Brain Rules for Aging Well. Pear Press: Seattle, WA. 2017. Pages 226-227, 219-249.
 6 Medina, John. Brain Rules for Aging Well. Pear Press: Seattle, WA. 2017. Pages 17 – 18, 15-37.
7 Luquel, L. et al. (2009) – the Impact of the implementation of the methodology of care Gineste – Marescotti®, also known as “Humanitude”, on the administration of Neuroleptics. Geriatric Hospital Les Magnolias, Ballainvilliers. IPRIM, Institute for Research and Information on Methodology.  Scientific poster presented at 9th International Francophone Congress.

2 thoughts on “Dementia: Transformation through innovation

  1. Awesome article. Are there any assisted living facilities like those described in this article, located in the Spokane Inland Northwest Area?

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