Many people with Alzheimer’s disease often appear confused or distracted. They may be unable to concentrate long enough to start and complete a simple task like dressing or eating. This increased confusion has been linked to attention span. This means that sounds, objects, or people that are around patients with Alzheimer’s disease may interrupt the thought processes and affect the ability to concentrate on a task. It is still unclear how disease severity and sensory sensitivity to environmental stimuli are related to attention span and which specific stimuli are more likely to affect concentration.
A study which used removable dividers or screens of different heights was conducted at the Corinne Dolan Alzheimer Center. Twelve patients, in the early and middle stages of the disease, worked on a simple task, which in this case was an art project. Two movable dividers of different heights were used to create defined space in the dining/activity area so that attention span could be measured and compared under different conditions. Patients also worked on the projects with no dividers. During each twenty-minute period, observers recorded the frequency and type of distractions that prevented the patient from concentrating on the art project.
Results of the test show that both the low and high screens (54″ and 78″) helped residents concentrate on the project. Even though there were normal noises and activities in the adjacent areas during the test, the number of times that residents were distracted was reduced by two-thirds with the use of screens. The screens were also effective in reducing the impact of auditory distractions. A decrease in the number of distractions appears to have helped increase attention span. Under all test conditions, with and without screens, the patients were able to concentrate on the art project for an average of sixteen minutes.
Large rooms have many potential visual and auditory distractions which may interfere with the ability of patients with Alzheimer’s disease to concentrate. Portable screens or room dividers may be one important way to help individuals distinguish relevant from irrelevant stimuli. For example, during the early and middle stages of the disease, patients might benefit from small, enclosed eating areas, rather than large dining rooms. Also, it might be easier for a patient to get dressed behind a screen so that only those essential items needed for dressing are visually accessible. For example, the patient would not see his or her bed, favorite chair, or outside distracting activities. Portable dividers are a versatile and adaptable response to the changing needs of the Alzheimer’s disease patient because they can help support focused attention skills.