Talking to people with dementia can be hard work. As a health professional I have often used numerous creative strategies to do this, borrowed from my knowledge of working with people with aphasia post stroke, or cognitive communication difficulties post brain injury. These strategies can include modifying the environment (quiet is generally better- therefore off the ward, no TV, no visual distractions either), considering the time of day (depends on the person when they are at their best), modifying my communication (using pictures can help or hinder, modifying language to be simpler is not always effective) and considering carefully what else might help (do friends/carers/family help or not). This can really very effective ways of interacting.
When doing research with people with dementia communication strategies can also support participation. I have been running focus groups with people with Primary Progressive Aphasia, and more recently people with Alzheimer’s dementia. The strategies that we needed to employ to support people to participate were overlapping but different. Some of the commonalities included environmental factors, such as the way the chairs were set, the number of participants we invited, the pace of the activities. Some strategies needed to be specific to the individuals involved. One person I worked with used gesture to convey meaning, and I needed to use more clarification to ensure I had interpreted her correctly. Another person I worked with needed frequent re-orientation to the task and where his partner was, whilst also participating in some discussion.
That said, it can be very easy to use more leading or biased language when one tries to break things down and make them more accessible for the listener. We are supposed to use the least bias possible, and present information in a balanced way. Unless we carefully consider the way we use pitch, tone, and gesture alongside vocabulary we can easily biased people without even realising it. I was recently speaking with another SLT, Sarah Griffiths who has recently blogged on this topic for the dementia researcher website. Sarah is a former senior lecturer at Marjon University and currently a research fellow at Plymouth University. We were discussing how we do research with people with dementia, how we engage them in a conversation or interview, but don’t bias them and whether this is even possible. The more I think about this, the more I am not sure we can’t avoid some bias. But perhaps by being mindful of context and language, by using multiple choices and acknowledging bias this can help.
Sarah put me onto a great blog by Jemima Dooley, she cites the work done by a group of researchers with dementia called the Forget-Me-Nots who are coming up with tips and hints on how to support people with dementia to tell their stories in a research context. Jemima discusses the idea of using photos, taken by the research participants, which then support discussion points in interviews. I have used this approach, successfully in therapy, and PPI work. I have yet to see it work in research activities specifically. I am planning to use it in some work I doing shortly. But again I am not sure that this is without bias, and interpretation.
I have though quite a bit about this, and I have actually been pondering whether, as long as we use all these strategies to maximise participation, should we actually be focusing more on how we are interpreting the data? Do we need to be mindful of getting assurance from the people themselves, their families or other people with dementia, that we are interpreting the data correctly? Would this support our methodology too? Can we do this with people with dementia?
Food for thought!