Communicating with Dementia

Making Conversations Count

Newcastle University is improving communication between people with dementia and their loved ones

An estimated 50 million people around the world are living with dementia. Caused by a breakdown of the connections in the brain, dementia affects people’s skills, abilities and interactions. Symptoms of dementia often include memory loss, difficulty in concentrating and problems communicating, which can impact upon the way in which people interact on both sides of a conversation. This can contribute to huge strains on patients, their families and care providers.

“Communicating with people with dementia is important for their wellbeing and beneficial for everyone, both carers and those who are being cared for,” explains Dr Tony Young. “Dementia affects more than 800,000 people in the UK alone and the Alzheimer’s Society estimates that 25 million people in the UK have a close friend or family member with the condition.”

DemTalk, supported by Alzheimer’s Society UK, brings together experts, family members and people living with dementia. DemTalk is a web-based toolkit which is helping to improve communication with people with dementia. The team are also developing international versions of the advice packages, and using them to help medical undergraduates in their training both at the University's Newcastle and Malaysia campuses.

“Communicating with someone living with dementia can be difficult,” says Dr Young, who is part of the development team. “We put together the DemTalk toolkit to show the different ways you can improve communication. It has proved popular with professional carers but we wanted it to reach as many people as possible so we set up the website and ensured it is absolutely free to use.”

Most recently, the team have developed a smartphone app for young people who have difficulty talking to older relatives or friends with dementia. The project was developed as part of the DemYouth project in which researchers worked with young people with personal experiences of dementia. Communication breakdown, frustration and lack of confidence were the main issues reported. Most participants wanted to do more to care for their relatives but said that ‘young person friendly’ information was hard to come by.

Using the new smartphone app Ticket to Talk, young people create a profile of themselves and the person they would like to converse with. The next step is to collect digital material in the form of sounds, pictures and videos relevant to a particular period in their family member’s life which are then collated into a customised playlist of prompts. Items such as photos of old cars or pets and clips from favourite films and YouTube videos can then be used to start and guide conversations and stimulate reminiscences.

“Research suggests young people often find initiating and leading conversations with older relatives with dementia particularly difficult,” says Dr Tony Young. “This new tool gives young people more confidence and paves the way to easier and more enjoyable communication with their loved ones or people they care for.”

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