Television; Friend or foe of dementia care?

In today’s world, the talking screen had become ubiquitous. It talks to us in our doctors’ offices, it entertains us with sports at bars and restaurants, and it comes on to sell us something even when we pull the handle on the gas pump! It is a fact of life that we seem unable to avoid.

I have noticed also in both professional memory care facilities and in care partner’s homes, the talking screen is ever-present. Is this good? Does it aid or detract from good dementia care?
I look at television as a tool, and like any tool it can be very helpful or extremely damaging, depending on whether we use it skillfully or haphazardly.
In determining how we use television, we must pay attention to the facts that 1) our loved ones with dementia process incoming information more slowly, if at all; and 2) they can have adverse reactions to too much visual and audio stimulation.

Too often, I visit homes or care facilities where people with dementia are sitting in a recliner, facing a big screen broadcasting 24-hour news. This, in my opinion, is the absolute worst use of television. Cable news has an excited fast-talking head that suddenly switches to a different talking head. A moving image is dancing in the background, boxes with additional images are popping in and out of the corners of the screen, and across the bottom are scrolling banners that contain information that even the quickest-witted person cannot keep up with.

It is overstimulation on steroids, and in no way is it appropriate for a person with dementia. Not only does it over-stimulate, but our person with dementia cannot tell whether the latest bombing or shooting that the talking head is breathlessly describing is taking place in another city or right outside, on our street.
My unequivocal advice is: Don’t use cable news to baby sit your loved one with dementia. It is the equivalent of cruel and unusual punishment!

But this doesn’t mean all television is bad. There are shows that can create a calming effect, which can be both appropriate and helpful. Certain forms of sports, such as tennis, baseball, or golf seem to sooth a person with dementia. They may have no idea who is playing, winning, or losing, but the repetitive motion of the game seems to have a calming effect. But avoid the kind of sport shows that focus on over-excited, loud, shouting announcers. Again, avoid the talking heads.

Movie can be beneficial. Movies that are nostalgic for your person, or that contain beautiful landscapes, quiet dialogue, or soothing music can work well. My husband dearly loved musicals. I wasn’t too excited about watching “The Sound of Music” for the hundredth time, but it always calmed him, resulting in a smooth and peaceful transition to bed each evening.

There are now special television services designed specifically for seniors or families living with dementia. Uniper TV offers free interactive programming aimed at the interests of senior viewers. To learn more, go to And Zinnia offers a subscription service intended specifically for individuals living with dementia. Check it out at

As dementia practitioners, we often advise care partners to avoid the overstimulation of television, but this does not mean it is inherently bad. Television is simply a tool that you can use for good or ill. Used wisely, it can give a care partner hours of respite, and his or her loved one hours of tranquility.

Until next time remember: “We all deserve the Best”

Send your comments and stories to [email protected]