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Osnabrück. The residents at the Hermann Bonnus nursing home get excited whenever Thees comes for a visit. The seven-month-old boy is at the center of a program called Babywatching, which hopes to improve the capacity of dementia patients to remember.

Thees gurgles happily when he and his mother, Anja Moormann, enter the common room at the Hermann Bonnus House in Osnabrück. Five residents of the nursing home have been waiting expectantly for him to appear, and their eyes light up when Thees and his mother take their place on the yellow blanket in the middle of the room. "Hi Thees," the women call out to him, enthralled. "Take a look at all of them," his mother urges her son, and with large saucer eyes he peers about to take in all of the people who are present.


A first in Germany

A baby in a nursing home? Nothing unusual at the Hermann Bonnus House. The home is the first in the Federal Republic to participate in a pilot project, in which elderly dementia patients observe the interactions between a baby and his or her mother or father. B.A.S.E.®Babywatching, which stands for "Babywatching to reduce Anxiety and Aggression and promote Sensitivity and Empathy," is a program that was developed by the Munich attachment researcher Dr. med. Karl Heinz Brisch originally to foster empathy in nursery- and elementary-school children. Thees's father, Christoph Moormann, was instrumental in getting Babywatching into the nursing home. Moormann, who is a pastor and B.A.S.E. ® Babwatching trainer, learned that Brisch was eager to try his method in a nursing home, and he took up the idea and got in touch with Johanna Pohl, a gerontologist with connections to the Hermann Bonnus Haus.


Memories of parenting

Thees is the third baby to have visited the nursing home. Since April he has visited the home every Wednesday, and will do so for an entire year. The senior citizens look on as he cuddles with his mother or plays with a box of tissues. Pohl asks questions designed to help participants enter into the baby's world. For example, if Thees looks intently at his pacifier, she might ask, "Why is he doing that?" And one of the women might say, "Because he enjoys it!" But the purpose of the little boy's visit is not only to promote empathy, but to help them to remember. As Moormann explains, "Emotions are not subject to dementia." Observing Thees often allows parental feelings to rise to the surface, and they recall how things were when their own children were tiny. One older lady, for example, is no longer quite sure how many children she has, but she recalls that -- just like Thees -- all of them liked to grab at whatever things they saw.


Positive effects

The project, which in the meantime has also been conducted at the Paulusheim in Osnabrück and another nursing home along the lower Rhine, has been running for two and a half years. "And there are a whole bunch more waiting to get started, Moormann says. Initial evaluations indicate that Babywatching has a similar effect on senior citizens as on children and adolescents. Their cognitive capacities improve, anxiety decreases, and as a result their sense of well-being improves as well. "A lot of joy gets imported into their lives, says Moormann.


The baby remains in memory

But perhaps the most remarkable effect is just how anchored the children appear in the everyday lives of these senior citizens. The patients still ask about David, the first baby to have been brought to the nursing home, even though he hasn't been there for a good nine months. "There are a lot of things that they just don't remember, which is why it is so astonishing that they have such active memories of that baby," says Pohl. One patient, who is hardly able to talk and at her best manages only Yes and No answers, blossoms every time Thees is scheduled to visit. "It's like a 'Hello, I'm awake' moment, which lasts the entire day. It's almost like a drug," explains Manuela Ziegler, one of the caregivers who together with Pohl leads the group. Other participants are just as enthusiastic, asking on Wednesday mornings, "Are we going to go see the child today?" "Some of these people don't even remember where the dining room is, but they know when Thees will be coming," Moormann explains.


The feeling that "we're all together"

Babywatching has another effect, namely that it strengthens attachment among the participants. They come to sense that they are doing this "all together," and that feeling extends to Thees. As worker Angelika Dreier explains, "They call him 'our baby.'" The second group of dementia patients, who recently said goodbye to another baby named Theo, can hardly wait to greet another child in their midst. As Dreier puts it, "There is this desire to reexperience these emotions." And the joy is great whenever a postcard arrives from David or Theo.


Thees enjoys the attention as well

The caregivers are fascinated by the project, too. One of them is always peeking through the door to see what Thees is doing. "Our hearts open up," Dreier says, smiling. And Thees loves all the commotion and attention, says his mother, Anja. "It's so nice for him to see so many friendly faces. These are 20 minutes that belong to him alone, and he fully enjoys them."

(Source: Neue OZ, Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, by Danica Pieper, Photos Danica Pieper,18.08.2016)


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