Connection with others is key to one’s sense of self. For many people living with dementia, relationships change. Changes in communication, thinking, memory and behaviour are not widely understood. People report that friends drop away; others find attending their usual community events and groups more challenging.
Enabling a person living with dementia to maintain relationships with family, friends and colleagues and connection to their community of interest is important. So is creating opportunities to make new connections if former ones drop away. This is best achieved within the context of activities that build on what is meaningful to each individual. It requires seeing the person first; finding out who they are and working with them to create opportunities that enhance connection.
A person with dementia living alone is particularly vulnerable to becoming socially isolated. Allied health professionals have a role in connecting each person to social and community groups (1:p42).
- have expertise in assessing the routines and tasks involved in maintaining relationships and connecting people to their communities of interest
- identifying the person’s existing skills, abilities and strengths that can be built into everyday activities
- identify obstacles that prevent people from doing what they want help carers understand when and how to provide the right sort of assistance, and when to step back
- work with the person living with dementia and their carer to get around obstacles by modifying the environment, suggesting technologies or developing strategies.
- get to know the history, passions, skills, culture and interests of the person living with dementia
- increase engagement by finding or developing enjoyable leisure activities and outings.
Social workers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers:5
- navigate the service system to locate the right allied health professional or service
- work with other allied health professionals and community services to develop culturally appropriate, dementia-friendly opportunities.
- work with carers to adapt their communication to stay in touch with the person living with dementia
- advise on the use of modalities other than speech.
Shaun had always worked hard. When he developed dementia and had to retire earlier than he had planned to, he needed to make some big adjustments.
But adjust he has. He started working a vegetable patch at home, and now volunteers at two community gardens, earning a TAFE certificate along the way. He meets a men’s group regularly. He volunteers at church. He reads.
And once a fortnight, he meets at a coffee club organised by a dementia advisor. Between 10 and 25 people, some with dementia, some carers, meet at the same café once a fortnight to talk and relax. An allied health professional is always present to provide support and information. Shaun has found them so good he’s started going to others in neighbouring areas.
Comment from social worker and dementia advisor Sue
The aims of the café are to promote social inclusion and peer support, and to offer ongoing information and support in a relaxed way. They are a great way for people to feel connected with each other.
I think two of the most valuable aspects of this model are the peer support, and the fact that it is appropriate for people with dementia from the very early stages and throughout the progression of the disease. Peer support is very powerful. I can spend a lot of time informing people about services, but being able to talk to others that receive services is far more effective in helping people to accept them. Recently one of our participants was admitted to hospital and needed to move into residential care; his wife didn’t drive so a couple of other carers from the group took her around to look at facilities and supported her throughout this very difficult time.
I have people attending the café that have been doing so since it started in 2008, they find this is a safe and supportive group regardless of the stage of dementia. Not all people will want to join a café; most come for the whole 2 hours, some just drop in for a few minutes, and some don’t come for months but do attend when they need some information and support.
I find being involved in the cafés very personally and professionally rewarding.
The National Dementia Helpline is an Australian Government funded initiative.