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Adult neuro-rehabilitation and my dog Hans

Simone Budding, OT at Renovo Care Group, examines parallels between adult neuro-rehabilitation and her dachshund’s journey following spinal surgery

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Until the age of 15, if someone asked me if I was a cat or dog person, the answer was always cats – we had two Burmese cats who were incredibly clingy.

But one night my dad brought home a dachshund whose owners were emigrating, followed by a second dachshund looking for a loving family and then a third who needed a new home.

I was truly a dog lover by this point, so when the inevitable happened and we welcomed a dachshund puppy to our family, I named him Hans and he became ‘my’ dog.  

One morning my parents woke up to Mollie (Hans’ mother) seemingly paralysed in her back legs. After a consultation with the vet, it was deemed that she had injured her spine and required spinal surgery.

The surgery would require a lengthy recovery period where she would have to be kept relatively still and movements of her back to a minimum. Mollie of course had other ideas! In fact, it was so lovely when she came home and realised that her feet were working again, she leapt jovially like a grass dolphin over our lawn. Other than a few staples in her back and overly cautious parents, her recovery went smoothly. 

Less than two years later, Hans woke up in pain and paralysis halfway down his spine. Another trip to the vet confirmed that he too had broken his back and had a spinal cord injury requiring surgical intervention.

Given our previous experience, we did not hesitate to go ahead with the surgery. Sadly, it did not take us long to realise that his recovery was going to be very different.

After surgery he had not regained the wag of his tail or the movement of his hind legs, his back half of his body remained flaccid and he had severely atrophied muscles where a once plush bottom was. He was incontinent of both his bladder and bowel but could empty both sufficiently for the vet to discharge him from the hospital. 

At home he would drag himself around with the strength of his front half of the body, fatiguing easily as he did not have the strength or endurance to cope with these new extra demands for mobility.

It was sad to see how his personality was changing, from being the first in line to inspect the kitchen for snacks to just laying in his bed and hope that his humans would bring him a takeaway snack.  

My colleague working in neuro rehabilitation at the time mentioned to me that her dog also had spinal surgery a few years prior and how she undertook rehabilitation with him in the swimming pool and even made it functional for him by providing him with a tennis ball to chase.

The inner drive of the occupational therapist to even make doggy rehab functional made me giggle, but equally made me think and wonder about how transferable human adult rehabilitation techniques would be for my Hans. As I was working away from home, I asked my parents to send me videos of his current mobility and I could then provide them with tips and suggestions of what exercises to do with him. 

The first video showed a doggy with a flaccid posterior half of his body, unable to move his hind legs or tail. Now, for the tail, I have no knowledge base to draw from, but for the flaccid lower half I instructed my parents to use some sort of suspension therapy (lifting the back half of the body with their strength and allowing him the opportunity to ‘run’ around as before) and the use of proprioceptive feedback techniques in the hind legs. 

The second video showed Hans using bunny hopping movements of the hind legs, due to no dissociation of his legs established yet. My recommendations were to continue with the use of proprioceptive techniques but to include doing cycling movements with his legs to help him dissociate them.

At this point I had moved back home as I had changed jobs. Because Hans could only mobilise by dragging himself around in the home and outside on the grass and tarmac (and at this point he did not believe he was disabled anymore) he would often have big bleeding scraped wounds on his tail, paws and penis. His decreased sensation meant that he did not realise how painful it was on the tarmac and grass.

This was where my knowledge of hand therapy and different taping techniques came in handy. I dressed his little wounds and then covered it up with Coban (which in turn provided sensory feedback) and added Hyperfix to ensure he could not bite it off.

To my surprise, the Coban provided enough sensory feedback to Hans that he started to try and stand up on his hind legs independently, it also provided him with a non-slip grip to aid him with his many attempts.

At this point I investigated assistive devices for dogs and came across rubber paw socks and a ‘drag bag,’ but Hans did not know what we were doing to him when we placed him in the drag bag and unfortunately the rubber socks were so tight it cut off circulation – so neither were an option for him. 

His physiotherapist started coming regularly to give him therapy. He started to use even more therapeutic modalities such as hydrotherapy (which he hated), using the TENS machine and using kinesio tape. 

Over time he became stronger and stronger and started to bear weight over both his legs, mobilising independently without the use of the suspension harness.

As he gained more control his back became more hunched. My parents were concerned that this was indicating that he was in pain, but the therapist in me knew that he was hunched at the level of his spinal injury and was using compensatory muscles to help him mobilise.

The natural reaction my human spinal injury patients have is ‘’please give me a back brace’’ and so my parents were requesting the same from Hans’ physiotherapist. It brought a smile to my face when she responded the same way I do to my patients ‘’the brace will decondition his body and would be a barrier in making the muscles he requires to mobilise independently weaker.’’

Just an important side note here, for some spinal surgeries the use of a back brace is vital, always follow the guidance from your specific therapy and recovery team. Similarly, a pooch wheelchair would take away the opportunity from him to weight bear and weight shift over his affected limbs and therefore inhibit his recovery. 

Many months later, Hans is now able to walk independently again, he is mostly continent, and he is living his best life.

From both his and Mollie’s recovery, I learnt that many parallels exist between the recovery of animals and humans.

Many modalities are just as useful in both species and the neuro plasticity principles I apply in my services to human patients could also be applied to my dog’s recovery.

The importance of adjusting our practise to individuals, their personalities and circumstances and knowing that people recover, progress and adjust at different paces was bourne out in the stories of Mollie and Hans.  

In my work at Renovo Care, I often think back to these experiences to help remind me that my patients all have goals which are important to them, and that perseverance is a key component of this. 

Insight

Dementia care – how to use storyboards

Dementia Carers Count look at how this valuable creative tool can be used at home

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Do you know that people living with dementia often process visual stories and information better than verbal communication?

Misunderstandings, distress, fear and worry all impact heavily on us and can place strain on relationships. Visual aids such as storyboards can help maintain mental wellbeing for both the person with dementia and for the carer.

Sue Hinds, head of services at Dementia Carers Count, takes us through a range of techniques that carers can adopt (or adapt).

When and why visual support might be useful

There may be times when you need to support a person with dementia in attending events which are important to them. This might include appointments with the GP or other services, family events, shopping excursions, planning a trip and opportunities to engage in hobbies and pastimes.

We know that people with dementia often have challenges in both understanding information provided to them and/or retaining the information for long enough for it to be meaningful.

Carers tell us that a range of situations and emotions can arise. This could include the person with dementia refusing to go because they genuinely believe they were never told about it. Anxiety about where they are going, confusion, disorientation, agitation, distress, tearfulness, a sense of unease, and many more emotions can all emerge.

These situations can also provoke a range of emotions for you as a carer including stress, worry, fear, frustration, and anger.

Things we know:

  • Providing information in bitesize chunks can help a person with dementia.
  • Providing visual reminders can help.
  • Visual information is often better understood than verbal information.
  • Visual information can be referred back too, spoken descriptions (unless recorded are fleeting).
  • Step-by-step instructions help.
  • Visual formats can help a person express their concerns more clearly.

What are story boards?

Image of a storyboard example to use with someone with dementia

Storyboards are one way to help support a person to understand, remember and engage fully with a meaningful visit, event or routine either inside or outside the home. They can capture key elements and stages of an event with images which can help the person to understand the event and will help to describe the actions at each stage.

By creating a storyboard, it can help you to identify all the stages and can help you think about what situations might arise, and can support a person with dementia to express areas which give them concerns.

Often storyboards can then be adapted or used again for other events.

Misunderstandings, distress, fear and worry all impact heavily on us and can place strain on relationships, and a storyboard can help maintain mental well being for both the person with dementia and the carer.

They provide a way to cope, help to maintain relationships and provide a new way of coping with challenges – providing a new way of thinking, behaving and interacting together even when things are tough.

How to create a storyboard

Generally, a story board can look how you want it to look, but they should not have too much information on a page as this can be overwhelming.

You may wish to create a storyboard on one page, or a storybook where you flick from one page to the next, or even a storymat where you can add, remove drop things down into a ‘we are here now’ section.

Follow the steps:

Think about the task e.g. Going to the doctors, and then think of all the steps which will happen (this is unique to your own routine):

For example:

  • We need to get up and out of bed at 8am
  • We will go downstairs
  • We will have breakfast
  • We will go to the bathroom and have a wash
  • Clean teeth
  • Get dressed
  • Go to the car
  • Travel to the surgery
  • Wait in the waiting room
  • Go in to see the doctor and talk to the doctor
  • Say goodbye and leave the surgery
  • Get back in the car and drive home
  • Arrive home
  • Sit down in the kitchen for a cup of tea and a cake

Ideas of things you can use to help you

There are lots of symbols and resources which you can purchase to help with this, but a good tip is to also take photos within your own home and when you are out and about with the people and places you visit. This will help you to tell the story with as many familiar pictures as possible.

It’s also often worth taking photos during a familiar event so these can be used in the future.  However, if you need some symbols there are various sites you can purchase them from and I have listed a couple below.

The creative visual aids website also gives a wonderful explanation of how visual aids can be used to support children, but the principles are exactly the same. The video below talks about the use of storyboards with children and I am currently in discussion with Gina regarding storyboards for people with dementia.

Talking Mats is another incredibly useful resource for supporting conversations, with videos and case studies of how visual aids can help a person with dementia in conversation and day to day life.

Good luck creating one, and have fun – we would love to hear from you with photos, descriptions and stories of how and when you use them. Perhaps you could also inform other carers through our forum: Virtual Carers Centre | Dementia Carers Count

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Dementia

Supporting mental and physical needs in complex dementia

St Andrew’s Healthcare look at the importance of meeting the needs of this client group

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Designed to recreate the feel of a village environment with a post office, pillar box, village hall, bandstand and bus stop, Lowther’s outside space helps to maintain familiar routines, encourage activities and provide essential distractions and engagement

In supporting the mental and physical healthcare needs of people living with complex dementia, specialist expert support is vital to achieving the best possible quality of life. 

St Andrew’s Healthcare is renowned for its work in this area and for its support of people and their families. Based within its Northampton site, the St Andrew’s neuropsychiatry service supports people with the most complex neuropsychiatric needs.

The service extends across Kemsley, the hospital’s brain injury unit, which has pioneered specialist neurobehavioural care since it opened over 40 years ago, and Lowther dementia hub, a bespoke environment opened in 2020 that is designed to meet the needs of people living with complex dementia and other progressive neurological conditions.

Working with older people within a neuropsychiatric service requires a range of specialisms. Here, we meet two of the multi-disciplinary team at St Andrew’s as they explain the importance of meeting the mental health, but also the physical health, needs of this particular patient cohort. 

 

Muthusamy Natarajan, consultant forensic psychiatrist

My name is Muthusamy Natarajan, I’m a consultant forensic psychiatrist and also clinical director for the neuropsychiatry service at St Andrew’s Healthcare.

How do you approach the care and support of older people in a neuropsychiatric service?

It’s important when working with and supporting older adults with mental health problems to consider how their organic and functional illnesses intertwine and how we progress them in their pathway at St Andrew’s and onward into the community. Connections with the patient’s family are also key so we also need to make sure we work to maintain those links whilst offering support to family members too.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

We have a lot of our patients who are living with dementia and obviously communication with those who are caring for them is a tricky challenge sometimes and making sure that their voices are heard. We have multiple methods do that including our advocacy services, but also our staff are really experienced and skilled in making sure that the patient’s voice is heard. 

How do we support people living with dementia and complex needs?

In 2020, we opened the Lowther village. The Lowther village was very much a critical part of our ability to deliver the best care for patients who are living with dementia and other complex progressive neurological conditions such as Huntington’s disease. 

The dementia village concept comes from the Netherlands, where the key area of focus is making sure that patients are able to experience familiar activities throughout their journey with dementia and that they are able to link with the community, and that’s what we try to do. Our aim is to make sure that patients have the least possibility of feeling like they are in an inpatient setting and that includes people who are on Mental Health Act sections and Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS).

What key interventions do you use when working with people living with dementia?

When somebody comes to us, we carry out a comprehensive multidisciplinary assessment that is the basis of their care and treatment. 

An individual might require specific psychological therapies and that may include things like reminiscence therapy, individual sessions to look at what their actual cognitive impairment is meaning for them on a day to day basis and we will use tools such as life story work. 

One of the key things we will look at when an individual comes to us is what activities and supports are going to help them through their journey, and that will include activities within the unit, but it also may include activities within our grounds and also further afield in the community. 

The third intervention is obviously in terms of our medical support, and we have a full complement of doctors, a responsible clinician, a geriatrician who works alongside us and also our specialty doctors and the medical team who look at the treatments we’re offering and make sure that is the most holistic approach to that individual’s care.

Having worked across a number of organisations what do you think makes St Andrew’s different?

What makes St Andrew’s different is that the culture and the organisation are geared to deliver care to very complex patients who come to us. The challenge to us is that we need to be able to demonstrate we can meet the complex care needs of our patients and ensure their journey is delivered in the best possible way and that we maintain our links with the carers and family for that patient. St Andrew’s does that incredibly well, and it does it holistically and in some ways, effortlessly. So building on that is a key area I think within the neuropsychiatry division and also within the charity as a whole. 

Parul Shah, consultant geriatrician

My name is Parul Shah, I’m a consultant geriatrician, and I joined the St Andrew’s neuropsychiatry multi-disciplinary team in February 2021.

As a consultant geriatrician, what is your role within the neuropsychiatry team at St Andrew’s?

My role as a consultant geriatrician within the team is to pick up on the subtleties of medical issues amongst our older adult cohort of patients and implement proactive management of their conditions so that patients don’t deteriorate any further with their physical health, reducing visits to acute hospitals and improving their safety whilst they are in our care here.  

What are some of the key areas of focus for you with St Andrew’s neuropsychiatric service?

One of my key areas of focus is to improve the overall strategy for older people’s health within the neuropsychiatry service with a particular emphasis on identifying frailty. Older people are often living with multiple conditions, and as they physically decline people become frailer, if we identify this and are aware of increasing frailty we can put approaches into practice such as exercise programmes and lifestyle changes that may prevent people’s physical health deteriorating.

Sometimes our patients exhibit very advanced stages of frailty, and then we need to recognise that they may be approaching end of life and that maintaining their quality of life is of prime importance, rather than necessarily focusing on physical health care interventions.

So I think that’s one of my main aims; to provide comprehensive assessments to older patients and identify why they’re getting frailer. If there are no reversible factors we then need to think about how to make them more comfortable and make the right decisions for them in their best interest by involving them.

To find out more about the St Andrew’s neuropsychiatry service visit: Neuropsychiatry services » St Andrew’s Healthcare (stah.org)

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Insight

The impact of stress on sleep

Dr David Lee at Sleep Unlimited offers advice on how to reduce stress and improve sleep

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In response to acute stress, our body produces adrenaline, to help us with the fight or flight response.

When our body perceives there is an immediate threat to our lives, this activates our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to increase our heart rate, respiratory rate, stop non-essential functions such as digestion and produce stress hormones.

During acute stress you may experience issues falling asleep and entering the restorative sleep stage as your body believes your life is in danger and so prevents you from entering a deep sleep in case you need to fight or flee during the night.

Once the threat has diminished the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is activated to lower our heart rate, respiratory rate and stop the production of stress hormones.

Evolutionarily this response was useful as we had to fight for survival if, for example, a bear was going to attack us. However, now our stressors tend to be due to relationships, financial stresses, or work-related stress. Things we are unable to run from, which can cause long term stress and SNS dominance.

Long term stress increases our cortisol production. Cortisol is normally at its highest peak in the morning to help us wake up, get out of bed, and have enough energy for the day. Levels of cortisol steadily decrease during the day, reaching its lowest point at around 10pm. This is so we are relaxed and able to fall asleep.

When cortisol levels are low, the PNS is activated during sleep, and we enter the restorative period of sleep. Cortisol levels start to slowly rise again at around 2am. If you are experiencing long-term stress, you may wake up at around 2am/3am as cortisol levels are already high.

To help reduce stress, you need to allow your body to feel safe. Here are some tips to help reduce stress and improve sleep:

  • Stick to a good sleep routine but try to go to bed earlier rather than later. If we are constantly stressed the PNS system may only be dominant during times we are asleep. As PNS is only dominant until around 2am, going to bed around 10pm will provide you enough time to rest and restore. 
  • In times of acute stress, exercise is important, so we move our bodies as if we are acting upon the fight or flight response. However, in terms of long-term stress more restorative exercise, such as yoga, may be helpful as this activates our PNS. High-intensity exercise activates our SNS as it increases our heart rate and respiratory rate, so try to incorporate restorative exercises into your routine as well. Remember exercise outside in the morning is better as it increases melatonin production for release later in the day to help you fall asleep.
  • Try deep belly breathing when you are feeling stressed to helps you to feel relaxed. When we are stressed, we tend to breathe short quick breaths from our chest instead of long deep breaths from our stomach.
  • Allocate time during the day to write down your worries and your to-do list as this will prevent you from worrying about them as you try to fall asleep.
  • Try to reduce caffeine intake. When we do not enter the restorative stage of sleep, we can wake up feeling unrefreshed and groggy, this can cause us to make a cup of coffee to increase our energy. However, caffeine also increases cortisol so try to reduce the amount of caffeine you consume, at least try to stop caffeine intake after lunchtime as this can increase difficulty in falling asleep. If you improve your sleep practices you are likely to feel refreshed in the morning, making it easier to reduce your caffeine intake.
  • Avoiding screens and working in the 2 hours before bed allows us to wind down and help us to switch from SNS to PNS. If we engage in work or see something on social media that causes our stress levels to rise, then this may cause us difficulty falling asleep.

*  Dr David Lee BSc PhD CertEd CPsychol AFBPsS CSci is clinical director at Sleep Unlimited

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