Animals Help the Alzheimer's Disease Patient

One of the many problems facing the person with advanced Alzheimer's Disease is not taking in enough food. Feeding is often a terrible problem, because the patients are either running up and down the hall, or they're so lethargic that they can't stay awake to eat.

Center researcher Dr. Nancy Edwards, of the School of Nursing, hypothesized that if patients could be calmed and focused they would increase their nutritional intake and decrease the amount of supplements they required. This not only would help reduce the cost of patients' care, but it's also healthier for the patients to get their nutrition from food rather than supplements.

Edwards, together with Alan Beck, found that by exposing Alzheimer's patients to tanks of brightly colored fish, the patients seemed to relax and their eating habits improved.

The study also showed a decrease in the number of instances, and the duration, of behaviors such as wandering, pacing, yelling and physical aggression.

For four weeks Edwards and Beck tracked 60 individuals who resided in specialized Alzheimer's units in three Indiana nursing homes. Before placing a fish tank in each nursing home Dr. Edwards and her students collected information on each patient's eating and behavioral patterns. The researchers weighed each patient's food before and after each meal, and patients were evaluated in 29 types of social interactions

The patients who were exposed to the fish tanks appeared to be more relaxed and alert and ate up to 21 percent more food than they had before the introduction of the fish tanks.

The tanks of colorful, gliding fish often held patients' attention for up to 30 minutes, a relatively long time for many Alzheimer's patients, Edward says.

The specially designed tanks used in the study were built by Jeff Boschert and marketed through his California company Some Thing's Fishy.

Designed specifically for nursing homes, the tip-proof tanks feature locked tops and unbreakable glass, and a specially designed background that allows the fish to be easily seen by residents who may have cataracts or other vision impairments. The units also can be moved easily from room to room.

The researchers are now designing a second set of studies to replicate the findings and to further identify the factors-such as color, motion and sound-which may stimulate patients. In addition, further studies will exam the value of fish tanks for the hospital staff.