Time to start clowning around

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

Let me be honest for a moment. I, like many other totally rational adults around the world, do not like clowns.

That's not to say I freak out if I see one performing at a festival or in a parade; they provide goofy and harmless fun in those settings. But clowns where they're not supposed to be? Downright terrifying.

Take, for example, this outstanding citizen that made the Chicago news shortly after I moved to the area for climbing a cemetery fence and waving at passing motorists while wearing a clown costume. In the dead of night.

Or this case from my home state of a clown wandering the streets at night holding a bunch of black balloons. That one turned out to be a promotional stunt for a horror movie, but still … if there aren't cotton candy and a marching band in the vicinity, clowns can stay far, far away from me.

But a new study published last week by Swedish researchers offers a pretty strong argument against my “no clowns where clowns aren't expected” policy.

Investigators in the Department of Care Science at Sweden's Malmö University set out to find how interaction strategies used by “medical clowns” — a profession I did not know existed until I stumbled upon this study — helped open up communication with a culturally diverse group of nursing home residents with dementia.

Over the course of a 10-week period researchers observed the clowns' — who had backgrounds in the arts but received special dementia training — interactions with the residents, and found the performers had a way of tuning in to the resident that goes far beyond balloon animals and magic tricks.

Using positive encouragement, confirmation, sensory triggers and meaningful objects, the medical clowns were able to bond with the residents in culturally responsive ways. The performances also boosted interaction between residents in the facilities' common spaces through music and drama.

“The observations showed that the medical clowns interacted with residents by being tuned in and attentive to the residents as individuals with a unique life-history, confirming each person's' sense of self,” researchers wrote.

The ways the performers interacted with residents also would help the nursing staff and other workers improve the way they communicate and conduct social activities in the nursing home, researchers added.

The full results of the study, published in BMC Geriatrics, offers up anecdotes of how the clowns used cultural aspects significant to each residents to open up communication, and in some cases even coaxing out full sentences from normally non-verbal residents.

The study doesn't tell providers to go out and rent a circus for the facility's next big event, but the message is clear. With a little background knowledge on each resident, these specially-trained clowns can open up a whole new level of communication for those with dementia. And that's not just funny business.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.


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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.