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Rocking chair trial begins

For the first time today, we are testing out the soundscape interactive rocking chair at Deerhurst, following our successful trials at Westbury Fields during the Tangible Memories project. We have six residents, relatives and staff who are all looking forward to sitting, rocking, listening and imagining, for a half hour relaxation session in the Garden Room.

As a recap, to summarise this tech-embedded piece of furniture, here is our poster from the recent Computer-Human Interaction conference in San Jose:

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Rocking chair poster presented at CHI 2016, a computer-human interaction conference focussing on ‘technology for good’. (Dr Peter Bennett, Heidi Hinder, Dr Kirsten Cater)

Designed for older people living with the advanced stages of dementia, the rocking chair plays sounds from the natural world, nature-themed poetry and music through speakers embedded in the headrest. The audio is triggered by the rocking motion of the chair, so the sitter doesn’t have to learn or remember an interaction. If the chair stops rocking, then the poems, music or nature sounds gradually fade away to quiet. The sound content plays at random, removing the onus of choice from the individual, and the associated anxiety and frustration of sometimes not being able to recall personal preferences.

Our first participant today was assisted into the rocking chair from a wheelchair, with the help of care staff and a hoist. As she listened to sounds of the dawn chorus and waves on the seashore, she asked me what was causing the rocking movement of the chair. When I told her that it was her legs, pushing herself back and forth in the chair, she was surprised but very pleased – she told me that she can’t walk. While we have largely focused on the emotional and well-being effects of the rocking chair, it seems we have underestimated the potential physical benefits as well!

There were two other highlight responses from today as well as this significant start. A lady called Thelma had felt very agitated and anxious before she joined us in the Garden Room to try out the rocking chair. By the time she left to go to lunch, she was smiling and happy, and seemed very uplifted by her experience.

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Thelma said she loved the music the most (more than the poetry or nature sounds), and she rocked in time with the rhythm of the music that she was listening to. She told me that she didn’t want the music to finish and at the end, repeatedly commented on how ‘that was so lovely’ and thanked me so much for the experience. She was moved to tears, telling me ‘oh, I could cry, that was just lovely’. Bidding goodbye, Thelma shook my hands in both of hers and kissed the back of my hand as she thanked me again.

Another instance that seemed to illustrate the uplifting effects of the chair, was demonstrated by a lady called Joyce who joined us in the Garden Room in tears and was very sad and upset at the start. After sitting in the rocking chair, listening to birdsong, and to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Joyce began to relax and started chatting to me (about music, her father, and how she liked instruments). She recognized Wordworth’s Daffodils poem and quoted some lines from it as she was listening. She was able to sing along with several lines of ‘Let There Be Love’. She left the session seeming much happier than she was at the beginning.

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Here at Deerhurst, like at the Oncology Centre, I also shared a selection of natural objects with the residents, to see which items they were drawn to pick up and handle for the different tactile qualities.
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This feedback will contribute to artist Steve Symons’ decision-making with regards to which materials he will use to design and produce a handheld interactive prototype for residents to pick up and play.

From this box of objects, Joyce chose the rubber, the bamboo spoon and the silver birch birdcall whistle. With the spoon and the birch-whistle in hand, Joyce enjoyed tapping these two pieces of wood together, in time to the music she was listening to while rocking in the chair.joyce-mealing-hands-holding-materials_small

As well as the many positive and encouraging responses from today’s participants, it was equally useful to observe aspects of the chair and app design that will need to improve in future developments of this initial prototype. For example, Thelma found it difficult to hear many of the softer nature sounds such as the cat purring, the sound of waves on the seashore or the crickets singing. It might be that this range of sounds is too subtle for those who are hard of hearing and, in future, we could reduce the number of these types of tracks – although some people do find them relaxing and calming, as these particular sounds have a similar effect to white noise, and they seem to help people fall asleep. Volume is also an issue. Residents have very different levels of hearing and the volume needs to be adjusted for each individual, then sometimes adjusted again within each track as a piece of music will suddenly get louder or dwindle away to a volume where people think it has stopped, if they can no longer hear it.

Overall, this first day of testing the rocking chair at Deerhurst was a very valuable experience. Each of the participants seemed to gain something positive from sitting in the chair, ranging from a restful sleep to a noticeable transition from agitation to calm, from sadness to happiness.

We look forward to returning to Deerhurst again next month and hope that we will once more see residents enjoying a sense of well-being provided by the rocking chair.

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