SCIE Research briefing 3: Aiding communication with people with dementia

Published April 2004

Updated April 2005

Introduction - What is the issue?

Communication is a two-way process and can be defined as, "person-to-person transmission of ideas through... language or... non-verbal media". Communication "is a fundamental aspect of all human relationships" and is an essential element of good care. Effective communication can improve the quality of life for a person with dementia. However, experts highlight that people with dementia lack the opportunity to talk and express their feelings about the quality of their own life and services they receive. It is vital that people with dementia are consulted on both issues: this can be achieved, given time. A number of interventions have been developed to work directly with people with dementia on an individual or group basis and also indirectly with family and professional carers and health/social care professionals to improve communication and quality of life for the individual with dementia and their carers. However, many health and social care professionals have no specific training in dementia care. Factors in communication include the type of dementia a person has, the effects of previous life history and personality, and the current caring environment. On a day-to-day basis, it is vital to enhance communication at all times, take the time to listen and understand, continue in efforts to communicate.

What are the implications?

The starting point for improving communication must be that it is centred on the person with dementia in his/her uniqueness. The barriers to communication, such as physical disability, the effects of medication and the environment, such as noise and lack of staff time need to be tackled in addition to other strategies. The two types of method used to improve communication - practical day-to-day practices and more formal projects must include a desire on the part of professionals (and carers) to listen more and talk less.

A number of strategies are both simple and cost-effective such as planned walking, the use of a mirror and toy stimulation. Training for carers is an accepted part of care and this must also include informal carers. A team approach can be used to develop and implement communication strategies: multi-disciplinary teams, including speech-language therapists and dental staff where appropriate. Those assessing and providing personal care to people with dementia need to recognise that, with time and care, individuals can be helped to express themselves more clearly and also contribute to discussions about service evaluation and development.