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Supporting people with dementia to communicate

We are very grateful to David Brennan, a Dementia Support Worker from Ayrshire for this powerful blog.

Over the years our service has supported many people with a diagnosis of Dementia, now and then we encounter individuals whose cognitive difficulties have greatly affected their ability to communicate. This can (in some cases) result in distress for the services user and their families, distress that could be reduced or even avoided if the individual had a way of being understood by those around them.
As a service we welcomed the opportunity to engage in the Talking Mats Training and as a Dementia Support Worker I was eager to have a tool that could help me overcome communication obstacles, having experienced situations where those I support become so frustrated because they desperately want to relay a piece of information, but simply cannot find the words to express themselves.
I saw talking Mats as a communication system for those who struggle with speech. However, after using the practice in a practical environment I realise that I have had underestimated its potential, for it has much wider applications in our role.
My first experience of using Talking Mats was when producing the video for the second training session. I enlisted the help of a gentleman from the neighbouring Day Care centre.
We had never met prior to the session. The Gentleman had no communication difficulties that I was aware of.
Using the Talking Mats acted as an instant ice breaker, giving two complete strangers a reason to sit down and interact together, quickly striking up a rapport. The Gentleman appeared at ease and was happy to talk in detail about the tiles for the chosen subject of ‘Leisure Activities’
The activity revealed more than expected though. Through the course of the conversation he voiced feelings on things he was perhaps not happy with. I discovered he was unhappy that he did not get out in the open air enough due to poor mobility and that he would have preferred to see musicians coming into his Day Care Centre. This was crucial feedback
It occurred that Talking Mats also had an effective use in the assessment and quality assurance process that exist within services, providing crucial feedback for continued person-centred planning.
Taking this on board I considered examples of service users within my current caseload where the activity could prove beneficial.
I have been working with one gentleman for many months. He could be described as a Man’s man, someone who often replies to attempts at conversation with short responses, even when speaking with his wife. He may struggle to remember the names of people and places but he typically has little other difficulty in communicating.
I attempted the same topic with this man. Much of the answers were as expected. He spoke about football and his favourite team, but the structure of the Talking Mats encouraged him to open up about some of the smaller details that until now he hadn’t felt the need to disclose.
In the most recent example I was asked to take part in a colleague’s Talking Mat video for her training. She is one of our newest members of staff and although we have already developed a good working relationship the activity allowed her more insight to the nature and history of her co-worker.
For my experience, as someone who can struggle with sensory stimulation, it allowed me to express some of my needs and obscure preferences (around the office and in general) in a safe environment where I felt able to communicate what would normally be very personal information. And to have someone listen and thoughtfully consider this was a rewarding experience too.
As a service, new to the Talking Mats system, we are just scratching the surface of how we can best implement this into our roles, but the possibilities are already multiplying at a rapid pace, almost as much as the benefits we are seeing.

David Brennan
Dementia Support Worker