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Namaste: Honoring the spirit within

February 4, 2013
by Shelley Silverman King, RN
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NA-mas-te: A greeting meaning, “I bow to your spirit”

Winchester Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Winchester, Mass., has a diverse dementia population in varying stages of the devastating disease, but no designated Alzheimer’s unit. Our journey into a Namaste experience began with our desire to address the sadness, isolation and loneliness of our advanced dementia residents.

This frail population was the incentive and driving force for us to explore alternatives to reach these residents. Dr. Susan Wehry, geriatric psychiatrist and advocate for seniors and persons with disabilities, notes that enriched environments can impact individuals in meaningful ways. Different parts of the brain respond to aromatherapy, music and emotions and touch, for example. Conversely, isolation inhibits and slows down the aging brain.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) ongoing focus on reducing unnecessary use of antipsychotics asks us to find new, innovative approaches to dementia care. The intent is not to wipe out the use of needed medications, but to ”Rethink, Reconnect with patient individualized care and Restore good health and quality of life,” explains Alice Bonner, RN, PhD, director, Division of Nursing Homes, Survey and Certification at the Massachusetts American Medical Directors Association.


In the 1990s, Dr. Bill Thomas started Eden Alternative, a program based on the fundamental belief that we must change the way we organize and operate long-term care facilities. He wanted to provide new solutions to old problems. At the heart of those problems, he saw three plagues: loneliness, helplessness and boredom. The foundation of Eden Alternative emphasizes relationships, community and surroundings that include living things such as plants and animals, as well as empowerment of all who participate in the community.

The culture change movement in long-term care strives to change the way frail and disabled people interact with their surroundings. Namaste programs also are focused on individualized engagement and the embrace of each resident’s needs and preferences.

We had a strong need to expand the options for our dementia residents. Our first initiative was to move residents out of the standard “lineup” in the hallways and into the living spaces.

Next, we examined our activity programming, which included music, dance, art therapy, improvisional theater, cooking, discussion groups and laughter yoga. We realized that a group of our residents could not relate to the activity program that was in place for the general population in our facility. Although programs offered a wide range of choices, they were not reaching the needs of our “lost” patients.


Joyce Simmard, MSW, created the original Namaste program. Her energizing book, Namaste, became a virtual recipe for success in advanced dementia care. The program reaches “the spirit within” each resident through an involvement with and attunement to the multiple sensory modalities. Our activity director enthusiastically embraced the new ideas.

Assigned staff members were required to read Simmard’s book. The assignment alone would weed out the faint of heart. We appointed a Namaste specialist and a point person for families and staff.

Instead of passive activities or large-group programs, small groups and individual interactions were offered using sensory programming. Current scientific evidence supports the concept that mind/body connections can reach the dementia patient. Somatic experiencing works with the body where the disease exists, reaching that part of the brain that still responds to touch/hand massage, music, movement (or the “kinesthetic sense”), and aromas from essential oils.


We looked at our facility’s spaces and considered the ongoing schedules for the rooms that were available. We learned that

Mrs. L was non-verbal and had very little reaction to her surroundings. Soon after her time in the Namaste room, she was engaging in short conversations, answering questions appropriately and telling her caretaker how she felt about things, ranging from having her face washed ("it felt good"), to seeing pictures of Elvis and letting staff know "she wasn’t crazy for Elvis like she was for Frank Sinatra."

the success of the program was not about the ideal spot, but about creating opportunities with what we had to work with. What defines the Namaste Room is the philosophy of nurturing, individualized attention through loving touch and meaningful interactions while “being in the presence of others.” The mind, body and soul of the person are the focus; therefore, quality of life can be at the forefront of the program.

So, we carved out our spaces, and selected our residents based on the criteria outlined by Simmard. We chose residents with a diagnosis of advanced irreversible dementia who were unable to participate meaningfully in routine activity programs. The target Mini-Mental Exam score was 0-7. Participants had challenges in communicating, needed total assistance with personal care and were nonambulatory.