Offbeat Cartoon Videos Seek to Demolish Dementia Stigma

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A new set of educational films aims to alleviate the stigma of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia in a unique way. Far from the dry, statistics-laden reels one might expect when dealing with such a serious subject matter, the series of ten short clips adopts an approach that creators—members of the Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives (NEIL) Program at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland—simply refer to as "quirky."

Called the FreeDem Films, the movies feature a cast of cartoon characters, as well as real people, acting out the answers to some scary, yet common questions about the aging brain, such as:

"I have trouble remembering things—am I getting dementia?"

And, "What's the difference between Alzheimer's and dementia?"

Laughing in the face of dementia

Animated characters and bouncy sound effects may not seem like the most respectful way to address dementia, but the playful tone has a purpose, according to Sabina Brennan, Assistant Director of the NEIL Program.

"People with dementia are stigmatized and this stigma leads to discrimination, depression, social isolation, delayed health-seeking behavior and other negative outcomes. Stigma prevents open discussion, and promotes the false belief that nothing can be done for people with dementia," she says in a statement. "The two-minute films are surprisingly fun and entertaining to watch so we hope that people of all ages will share them online with family and friends."

For example, the film, "I have Alzheimer's disease—what can I do to help myself and improve my day-to-day life?" offers useful, science-backed strategies—eating right, exercising, staying connected to friends and family—while deftly balancing hope with reality, saying "there is no Golden Key" to fully preventing or reversing the disease.

And the series doesn't shy away from describing society's role in helping people with dementia and their families cope:

"How can we include people with dementia in our community?"

Brennan laments that the dementia stigma often makes it harder for those dealing with cognitive impairment to interact with the world around them, but says the solution to this issue may be a simple one.

"Stigma can be reduced through the provision of accurate information about the disease, through the clarification of misconceptions and through the communication of empathetic feelings towards individuals diagnosed with the disease." Previous educational efforts have focused on the scary statistics and tragic stories of families affected by Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases, but such attempts at raising awareness haven't engendered much empathy for people with dementia. Brennan and her colleagues feel the time is ripe for a new approach.

(You can view the full series of Freedem videos here.)

Some dementia patients and their families have also decided that a direct approach is best for increasing education about Alzheimer's and similar diseases; using multiple outlets to share their real-life experiences with cognitive impairment. One such outlet is a multimedia story called "Fade to Blank: Life Inside Alzheimer's," which chronicles the personal journeys of three families dealing with the disease.

What do you think? Can quirky videos promote discussion of hard-to-talk-about topics like dementia, or do such portrayals do those suffering from these disorders a disservice by making light of a serious situation?

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