Lego therapist Kitty Short explains how the much-loved building bricks can have surprising benefits for people with dementia

When drama teacher Kitty Short did a training course in Lego therapy, she hoped the skills she learnt might help some of the children she worked with, particularly those with autism.
They did. “I was really encouraged by the way it seemed to increase self-esteem, social confidence and communication skills,” says Kitty, from Manchester.

Lego therapy is now a fairly well-established intervention for children and young people on the autism spectrum and with other related communication difficulties. The therapy involves children working in small groups of three, each taking on a specific role, with the aim of building something together. “It teaches cooperation and improves concentration and dexterity among other things,” Kitty explains. “It’s a great concept.”

But could Lego therapy help other groups of people – adults perhaps? Kitty suspected it might and decided to find out. “I wondered if the therapy would work for people at the other end of the age spectrum, so I visited a local care home which had elderly residents with dementia and found a really welcoming activities co-ordinator who was prepared to give it a go.”

Lego itself may be designed for children but it does already have many adult fans. In fact, AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego) are so passionate about the plastic bricks that the company has created a range of advanced building bricks designed to appeal specifically to adults which includes everything from the Beatles to architectural marvels of the world.

Residents at Averill House Care Home in Manchester may not have been able to build the Statue of Liberty (the kit has more than 1,600 pieces) but they were definitely intrigued by the concept… and once they got going, it was clear how much they were enjoying it. “I saw straight away how focused they became,” recalls Kitty. “When my first group managed to complete an activity – they built a sheep - I felt euphoric! I knew it was going to work. “

Kitty also began to understand just how many benefits Lego therapy could bring. She saw it encourage residents to socialise and chat, it improved their concentration, increased their motivation and creativity – and revived many happy memories. “It was like a reawakening of the senses,” she says. “And the benefits definitely lasted long after the Lego had been put away. Carers told me the residents were more confident and engaged – and really looked forward to their next session.”

Kitty now does Lego therapy in several care homes in the Manchester area, and finds it's particularly popular with men. “Not everyone wants to play dominos and lots of other care home activities, like singing and crafts, do seem to appeal more to women,” she explains. “ So it’s great to be able to offer an activity that appeals to men as well. “

She would love to see Lego therapy become a recognised and respected therapeutic activity for people with dementia. But there are still a few stumbling blocks (no pun intended).

“Lego instructions are often written in very small print. I can get around that by increasing the size and putting them on laminated card so they’re easier to hold,” she says. “Some people even use a magnifying glass to see them better.

“But the biggest challenge is finding the right size Lego pieces for older adults, many of whom have arthritis and find it difficult to handle very small items. But the larger bricks, such as Duplo, don’t offer enough of a challenge and are too childish and demeaning. What we really need is something in-between.”

However, the challenges haven’t stopped Kitty and Co from constructing - among other things - several shops, small houses with gardens, vintage cars, hair salons and quite a few sheep...

Lego has recently been identified as a stress buster for adults and is now being marketed as a mindfulness tool. After all, being fully absorbed in one activity for a period of time can have a relaxing, almost meditative quality for anyone. Research by the company backs this up with 86 per cent of adult Lego fans saying it helps them feel more relaxed.

The joy of Lego therapy is one everyone can experience, according to Lego designer Chiara Buscontin: “If you have bricks on the table you'll automatically fidget with them," she says. 'And when you have more you'll automatically start creating something, whether you're a kid or an adult.”

So how about creating more Lego kits that are easier for adults with dementia to enjoy as well?

What is Lego therapy?
It’s a structured way of using the popular building bricks to construct something. Participants work together in groups of three, each is given a well-defined role:
The engineer – reads the instructions then gives verbal instructions to the other team members - and makes sure they are followed.
The supplier – follows instructions from the engineer to find the right size, shape and colour of brick needed.
The builder – puts the bricks together.
Roles are rotated in the hour-long session – everyone gets 20 minutes each in each role.

Find a course
Courses are currently aimed at children with autism, but you could do what Kitty has done and adapt what you’ve learnt. For more information go here