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Speaking "Around" People with Dementia

Have you ever been in a store or public place and people around you are speaking in a language you don't understand? Maybe they're even glancing your way and gesturing. Do you wonder if they might be talking about you? Imagine what that would be like for someone with dementia. People with dementia often experience feelings of paranoia and caregivers speaking a language that they don't understand can make it worse.

Unfortunately, we see this all too often in care facilities. As in most workplaces, staff in facilities come from a diverse background and many have a first language other than English. It is natural that they talk to their coworkers in that language. The problem arises when they do it in the presence of the residents. While the conversation may have nothing to do with the resident, it can still cause the person to become upset.

Even conversations in the resident's language, when taking place around the person rather than directed to them, can have the same effect. Because of the losses associated with dementia (see our article "Losses Associated with Dementia - The Seven A's"), many people with dementia have trouble understanding language, and perceiving it correctly.

Most caregivers don't realize the negative impact that their conversations can have, and when it is pointed out to them, they generally are surprised. It was not their intent to agitate the person, they were simply communicating with their coworkers. Through training such as the DementiAbility Methods: The Montessori Way program that we offer, staff can be made aware of this issue and others, such as playing loud music, keeping the TV on in the background and other distractions that can be misinterpreted or cause distress.

This article by an occupational therapist at Baycrest Health Sciences Centre discusses how you might handle the situation if someone with dementia that you know is faced with this problem.

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