By now, most people have heard about the effectiveness of using sun lamps to treat people suffering from seasonal depression – a disorder that is brought on, in part, by decreased exposure to sunlight during the winter months.

But this past year, a pilot study conducted by Ecumen at three of its Minnesota-based memory care facilities – including Detroit Lakes – has shown that light therapy can be equally effective in improving the quality of life for those suffering from dementia-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

“We’re very encouraged by the results,” said Sonya DeSmith, an Ecumen Quality Improvement Nurse who supervised the study, in a recent press release. “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 toolbox of evidence-based, non-drug interventions for residents with dementia.”

“We have noticed our residents are sleeping more soundly at night, and longer,” says Cheryl Krause, director of nursing at Ecumen Detroit Lakes, which participated in the pilot study along with Ecumen Parmly LifePoints in Chisago City and the Ecumen-managed Grand Village in Grand Rapids, Minn.

Some of the benefits of improved sleep have, for many patients, included a decreased need for psychotropic drugs such as antidepressant, antianxiety and antipsychotic medications, Krause added – “and we’ve had fewer falls, which is a very good thing.”

Improved sleep leads to better visual acuity and awareness, which in turn leads to fewer falls, she added. “If you don’t get a good night’s sleep a night, you wake up groggy and tired, mentally foggy. It’s no different for our residents.”

It also improves general well-being. “If you feel better, then you’re more positive and want to participate in activities and do things. That’s just human nature,” Krause said.

‘Happy Lights’

“They’re called ‘Happy Lights,’” says Brenda Labine, the activities director for Ecumen-Emmanuel Nursing Home in Detroit Lakes, which includes a memory care unit. “We have 30 of the smaller lights and three of the big ones.”

The lights were purchased through a grant funded by Leading Age Minnesota, with support from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, according to Janet Green, executive director of Ecumen-Detroit Lakes.

The grant also helped Ecumen-Detroit Lakes to purchase such things as motion activated under-bed lights and nightlights to improve residents’ sleep and prevent falls, as well as personal lights for nurses to be able to enter patients’ rooms at night and check on them without having to turn on an overhead light and wake them up, Labine said.

She says she uses the bigger “Happy Lights” during group activities such as arts and crafts or bingo, while the smaller lights are often placed in residents’ rooms, so the nurses can flip them on while they’re assisting each resident with their morning routine, getting out of bed and ready for the day.

“We’ve only used them in the memory care unit so far,” says Labine. “There were 24 people who participated in the study, which ran from April through December (2015).”

Besides improved sleep patterns, the study also showed that residents in the program needed less medication for anxiety and depression, and showed less evidence of stress behaviors like pacing and shouting, Labine added.

“I really think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Krause said. “We’ve had very positive effects with this (light therapy). It’s been a small trial type of thing, but I think as we move forward and put more residents into this therapy program, we’re going to see even more results that are really going to change the way we care for our residents and care for their quality of life.”

Across the three properties that implemented the light therapy program, the pilot study showed an almost 60 percent reduction in episodes of sleep disturbance and 32 percent fewer behavioral episodes, compared with 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.

“I think I only had one person tell me the lights were too bright,” Krause said. “We’ve had positive results pretty much across the board.”

The light therapy project will be incorporated into Ecumen’s 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.”