Here is Thelma’s story:
One of the LAUGH research prototype products objects that care staff recognised as having a significant impact on a person’s wellbeing was made for Thelma, a lady in the advanced stages of dementia who was largely bed bound, non-verbal and who was having frequent falls. The carers had suggested to the design team that what this person needed most of all was a hug. Thelma had been a very popular member of the care home community but with her declining health she had lost her sparkle and become increasingly withdrawn. The playful object that the LAUGH team developed was a soft cushion-like wearable baby, made from soft fury fleece and containing electronics that simulated a beating heart and that played her favourite music – a selection of Vera Lynn songs. Thelma responded positively to the object immediately, holding it close and resting her head on it to listen to the music. Over a period of three months there was a marked improvement in her health, she began to speak and socialise again and most significant of all, despite being up for most of the day she had no further falls after being given HUG. The carers commented:
‘She’s come alive so much, whereas before she was sitting in her chair all day, not interacting with anyone just laying there and then going to bed for most of the day. She’s like a different lady now. ….HUG changes her. Her face has changed and she’s so talkative lately, this is like a miracle in a way.’
The need to give as well as receive affection is a deep and basic human instinct. The weighted arms of HUG provide the sensation of a human embrace and the soft form of the body shape is designed to stimulate emotional memories of nursing a small child. In Thelma’s case this also resulted in interaction with other residents and professional carers who took an interest in her ‘baby’. The embedded electronics in HUG enabled the device to be highly personalised. Thelma’s favourite music – a collection of Vera Lynn songs, seemed to provide her with a sense of serenity and comfort and are important signifiers from her lived experience that help retain her personhood and dignity. The simulated beating heart of HUG is designed to stimulate emotional memories of physical closeness with another person, something that is often lacking when someone is in residential care, especially if they have few visitors. As one of Thelma’s carer’s commented:
‘that’s a human basic need isn’t it, to be loved and touched and have that connection?’
Although this object was designed specifically for Thelma, care staff identified a number of other residents that they believed would benefit from a similar HUG object, personalised with the addition of that person’s favourite music. The physical sensation of being held close is an expression of being loved and the nurturing activity of nursing a child reaches deep into the human psyche fulfilling a lifelong human need to be touched, connected, and cherished. Carers noted that “We can’t step over the boundaries to hug, cuddle” but HUG is able to help to fulfil this human need. It will never replace human affection, but it does provide comfort and reduce anxiety when a human hug isn’t possible.