Tables work their magic with dementia patients


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Modern medicine can work wonders, but residents at Winnipeg’s Riverview Health Centre are discovering that a little magic can also transform the lives of people living with cognitive challenges.

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Modern medicine can work wonders, but residents at Winnipeg’s Riverview Health Centre are discovering that a little magic can also transform the lives of people living with cognitive challenges.

Riverview is installing nine state-of-the-art Tovertafel — Dutch for “magic table” — a pioneering games system designed for use in dementia settings in its long-term care, chronic care and special needs and behaviours units.

The “magic tables” — each of which costs about $16,000 — feature a ceiling-mounted computerized console that projects interactive shapes and colourful animations onto a table, floor or any flat surface. Infrared sensors allow the players to physically manipulate the images through even the smallest movements of their hands or feet.


‘I love them. I think they are going to add a lot of value and benefit and improve quality of life for our residents. I’ve already seen the difference’

— Resident care manager Jacqueline Reimer, on the new Tovertafel

The Tovertafel’s games are intended to entertain, but their primary goal is therapeutic. Launched in 2015 by a Dutch medical technology company, these “magic tables” have shown promise in increasing physical activity as well as social interaction among residents with dementia and there is also evidence it decreases some of the negative behaviours associated with dementia, including apathy, restlessness, agitation, difficulty paying attention, personality changes and wandering.

A Free Press columnist and photographer visited one of Riverview’s long-term care units late last month to watch a pair of residents put one of the so-called “magic tables” through its paces.

“They are magic,” said Jacqueline Reimer, resident care manager at the health centre. “I think we’re still at the early stages of using it. We just need to build it more into the care plans. I love them. I think they are going to add a lot of value and benefit and improve quality of life for our residents. I’ve already seen the difference.

“We just see the engagement and laughter and joy between residents and staff. It’s that connection. Also I’ve seen families use it. Sometimes later in the dementia process it becomes more challenging for our residents to communicate with their family and have that really meaningful connection. This is a way that family can sit down with the resident, put on a game and they can do something together… it’s building that relationship they once had.”

It’s not hard to see how this technological innovation has earned its magical moniker. During an hour-long visit, a recreation therapist helped two long-term care residents — Mary, 79, and Eleanor, 81 — play a series of therapeutic games that involved interacting with 2D images projected on the surface of a table.

In the first game, the residents used their hands to sweep musical notes into an old-fashioned music box which, when fully loaded, released three lifelike tiny ballerinas that pirouetted gracefully around the table top. The players were able to make the tiny dancers spin faster with a simple flick of their fingers.

“That’s a lady dancing,” Eleanor said to Mary as the pair, with a little help from a curious columnist, spun the ballerinas faster and faster. “She’s a dancer, a ballerina. It’s pretty. It’s to get us to use our minds.”


2D images are projected onto the surface of a table.

Reimer recalled how the music box game helped soothe an Alzheimer’s patient who had been wandering the halls in an agitated state.

“I brought her over to the table,” the resident care manager said, smiling at the memory. “She was a little anxious. We put on the music box game. As the ballerinas were dancing around the table, she said: ‘Put those girls to bed! They must be so tired.’ As she was watching them, she just totally calmed down and within half an hour she was asleep.”

Reimer noted the magic tables are equipped with roughly 30 games, and the degree of difficulty can be adjusted to meet the residents’ needs. The system has been shown to stimulate four important areas of the brain to encourage play and social interaction. Residents can play on their own or in a group.

She noted Misericordia Health Centre installed one of the units last year, but Riverview is the first Manitoba hospital to go all in on the technology, spending $144,000 for nine magic tables, two of which are up and running.

“I was a little skeptical at the beginning. I wondered if it would work for all residents,” Reimer said. “It was just neat to see. The outcome was positive. There was a resident from another unit they couldn’t engage him in activities on the unit. He came down here and it was amazing to watch. He was so engaged. He was laughing and smiling, and this was a person who couldn’t engage with other activities they were doing. It’s neat how it works. There’s the magic.

“They’re making lives better, definitely. Our residents have more of a quality of life. When living in long-term care, they often don’t have visitors or family that can visit all the time. Recreation isn’t here all the time. This is a way of filling that void… it offers more value and meaning to their life. It’s making them feel valued as a person. I love them. I think they’re fantastic.”


Nine Tovertafels are going to be installed.

The Tovertafel technology will be featured in a video presented at Riverview’s gala fundraising dinner, Laughs + Libations, on Oct. 13 at the RBC Convention Centre. You can find more information and buy tickets online at

Along with the music box game, the two Riverview residents also raked virtual leaves, revealing ladybugs, that, when tapped, flew away. They also played games in which they had to nudge a letter into place to complete a word, or select the next number in a sequence.

The system’s magic was on full display again in a game where they planted virtual packs of seed, then manipulated rain clouds and the sun to get them to grow before finally harvesting digital vegetables and popping them into a basket projected on the table. That game prompted the two seniors to reminisce about the gardens of their youth.

At one point, while colouring in a digital fish, Eleanor began to speak of a day when she and her husband went on a fishing trip near their rural Manitoba home. “I had to clean them all,” she said with a sigh. Asked where they’d caught the fish, she chuckled and said: “I can’t tell you. I may get charged with catching fish without a licence.”

Later, over a cup of tea, Bridgette Parker, executive director of Riverview Health Centre Foundation, the centre’s fundraising arm, said the Tovertafel gaming consoles are definitely proving magical for residents, patients and staff.

“I do think they’re super. I’ve seen a number of different groups of residents using them, and the engagement and the smiles that you see when people are being successful and accomplishing the goals of the game is heartwarming. It just brings joy to your soul to see them enjoying themselves and having fun,” Parker said.

“They’re pretty magical. The technology behind them is fascinating. The fact you can use any flat surface to project down onto makes it so versatile. If you have someone who doesn’t have a lot of mobility in their upper torso, you can move the table out of the way and put it on the floor and they can use their feet to do it.”


From left: Long-term care resident Eleanor, recreation therapist Katherine, executive director Bridgette Parker and resident Mary play with a Tovertafel, or ‘magic table.’

Recalling Eleanor’s joy in sharing a simple story about fishing, she said: “It helps to bring up memories for them, happy memories. You could see the happiness on Eleanor’s face when she was telling that story. I think it’s important to be able to bring people to those happy memories.”

Almost magical, you might say.

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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