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Canadian filmmaker aims to decrease depression, anxiety among seniors

The moviegoers ate popcorn and laughed as they shared vivid childhood memories sparked by the short, seemingly simple 3-D film they’d just watched. Growing up near mountains. The freedom of childhood. Long ago summers.

Yet the 22-minute film is anything but simple. It is the first immersive film made specifically to help residents of senior communities be less depressed, anxious and lonely.

Canadian filmmaker Leah Iwaniuk of 3Scape Systems recently spent a week at Brookdale South Regal living on campus with the 160 residents, gathering ideas for new therapy films and getting feedback on the initial film – she also played bingo, did Sit and Fit exercises and got her butt kicked at Wii bowling.

“It’s groundbreaking,” said Iwaniuk, 52, after showing the film to nine residents. “There is nothing else out there that’s similar.”

Other than a conference in San Francisco, this was one of the first times the film had been shown to an audience of the very people it is intended to help.

The Edmonton, Alberta, company has done two clinical studies to help focus the films and incorporate reminiscence therapy, which is commonly used with older people and those with dementia. The idea is to provide residential communities an easy way to engage residents and improve their quality of life by sparking memories and encouraging talk.

The idea is that activity directors and social workers can show the films and engage residents in discussions, conversations that could uncover symptoms of depression and anxiety about issues such as family relations and death. Or the films could provide a few minutes of joy and connection for viewers.

“I think it could be great,” said Shereen Anglin, the executive director of Brookdale South Regal. “We can already see the responses.”

Iwaniuk ended up in Spokane by a serendipitous Uber ride her 3Scape partner Douglas Cole took with Andrew Smith, Brookdale’s director of innovation and strategy who is based in Nashville. Both men were attending a conference in San Francisco where Cole presented the immersive film. Smith invited 3Scape to use its newly formed Entrepreneur in Residency Program and get feedback for the film.

“We want to support interventions for seniors and their families,” Smith said. “This is such an enormous opportunity to make a difference.”

When the companywide email – Brookdale is the largest provider of senior living services in the nation – went out looking for a receptive Brookdale property, Anglin volunteered to involve her Spokane residents in the cutting-edge idea.

The residents appreciated the opportunity, evident by the full attendance at each of the numerous film showings during Iwaniuk’s visit. The residents also enjoyed talking with Iwaniuk, inviting her to meals and to attend activities.

“I didn’t want it to be over,” resident Helen Gillory said after seeing the film. “It was wonderful.”

Pat Davey told how he was born in Spokane but spent summers with relatives in Chesaw near the Canadian border in Okanogan County. Iwaniuk asked if the film helped bring back memories.

Davey said yes, but added, “I remember them frequently anyway.”

The film is categorized as immersive because it is in 3-D and uses a high frame rate, which means it’s more fluid and clear and lets the viewer feel like they are actually in the scene. It is also color corrected for aging eyes, and the sound is paced to keep people engaged and not dozing off to the soothing scenes. The shots are long and lingering, which adds a peaceful quality.

This initial film highlights a girl remembering spending a summer in the mountains with her grandparents that included hikes on rugged trails, canoeing and a trip to a ranch. It also subtly refers to her grandfather’s death and the importance of memories. Cole shot the film in Banff and Jasper national parks.

Most of the Spokane viewers were enamored with the beautiful scenery, trees close enough to touch and vivid sounds of rushing creeks and crickets. But Iwaniuk pointed out comments that had deeper meanings.

For example, a resident noted that in one scene the grandfather should have stayed closer to the girl while they hiked a steep, rocky mountain pass. Another woman said she was raised in a large family and never had the ability to be alone in nature like the girl in the film.

Iwaniuk said the resident who worried about the girl’s safety could have anxiety issues that need addressing. She added the other resident needs to honor her craving for alone time and space. The facilitators would need training to identify these red flags.

During a sample viewing in Canada, one of the residents was upset that the grandfather had died in the film, ruining the good feelings. A social worker talked with the woman’s family and together they helped the resident deal with the dying process and knowing that her life would be remembered.

“This helps find out the causes and deal with them and not just take the Band-Aid approach,” Iwaniuk said.

Eventually, the company hopes to have 30 films in its library on a wide range of topics from dancing and nighttime stargazing to travels to foreign countries. This afternoon group of Brookdale residents suggested a film on hunting wild animals with a camera, not a gun.

About five years ago, Iwaniuk, who has produced documentaries for the History Channel and Discovery Health, and Cole were working on educational videos. The pair also work for Image Works, a video production company. They both had family members in assisted living facilities and wondered how they could bring the outside world in to their family members. As filmmakers, the medium was obvious. That’s when they began working with the clinical doctors and turned the films into immersive 3-D therapy.

Currently the research and films have been paid with grants and fundraising, but the company needs an angel investor to make the next three films reality. From there, Iwaniuk thinks the company can sustain itself.

She is thrilled with the film’s reception so far and thinks it is already helping improving lives.

“My hope is that lives become full,” she said. “That people fall into bed at night smiling. That’s what I want.”

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to correct Andrew Smith’s title.
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