A research project involving a partnership between a university, primary school and a rest home is helping to remove the stigma associated with dementia.

Albany Primary School pupils are honing their communication skills with the help of Massey University Speech Language Therapy students. They are being coached to talk to local aged care residents as part of an inter-generational approach to break down barriers around communicating with people who have dementia.

The project, which runs throughout September to coincide with World Alzheimer’s Month, is a collaboration between Massey students, year 5 and 6 volunteers from Albany Primary School, and Aria Gardens Home and Hospital in Albany. The 14 pupils taking part are learning how to communicate with people with dementia through conversations, shared art activities, and tools such as TimeSlips, or creative group storytelling.

Annabel Grant, a clinical educator in the Institute of Education for the Speech Language Therapy programme, says the aim is to raise awareness of the need to create a more dementia-friendly society.

Third- and fourth-year Massey students have been working with residents at Aria Gardens for the past five years – a scheme representing a strong relationship between the Speech Language Therapy programme and the local community, and which includes pupils from Albany Primary School.

Community projects such as this address the issue of people with dementia becoming socially isolated because of changes in language and cognition that make it difficult for them to communicate.

Mrs Grant says research shows that community education is “one strategy for reducing the possibility of stereotypes developing, and reducing barriers to social interaction. Educating the wider community by way of intergenerational programmes can link younger and older people, benefiting both generations”.

Such interactions can provide an opportunity for older people to utilise their remaining valuable strengths and competencies, which can help to postpone further cognitive decline, and improve quality of life.

School pupils FISH for memories

The primary pupils have attended three educations session run by the speech language therapy students covering brain function and how memory works as well as basic dementia facts. This included learning communication tips and tools such as FISH, in which the ‘F’ means “face-to-face”; ‘I’ means “introduce a topic of conversation’” ‘S’ means “staying on the topic” and ‘H’ is for “helping the person when they are stuck in finding a word through using a visual aid or suggestion”.

This week the pupils met the adults at Aria Gardens and practiced their new communication skills. Next week the group will take part in TimeSlips storytelling activities.

TimeSlips was founded by American dementia scholar Dr Anne Davis Basting in the late 1990s. It provides a “failure-free environment for communication, which supports feelings of self-worth and encourages social connectedness,” Mrs Grant says. It works by opening up storytelling to everyone by replacing the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine. “Residents become storytellers, and the students find that the level of social interaction and conversation increases during and after the sessions.”

Laughter connects generations

Third-year speech language therapy student Ashley Doo says she has been struck by the primary school students’ excitement for the project. Many have grown up with beloved grandparents, and they relate well to older people. “The Aria Gardens’ residents loved meeting them. There was lots of laughter and smiles.”

Ms Doo has a grandmother with Alzheimer’s and says she wishes she’d had the chance to learn about communication tools as a youngster.

Aria Gardens’ manager Leanne Mortlock says the home values intergenerational connections. “They keep our residents engaged with the community, bringing joy and laughter as they interact with different age groups.

“We have kindergarten, primary and high school groups as well as university students onsite regularly and the positive influence they have with the residents is inspiring.”

As New Zealand’s ageing population burgeons and, with it the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, the demand for trained professionals as well as family members and the wider community to learn and use these techniques to enhance the quality of life for people with the condition will increase, says Mrs Grant. This will also help to reduce the stigma around Alzheimer’s and dementia, she says.

According to Alzheimers New Zealand, there will be an estimated 170,00 New Zealanders with dementia by 2050, with 30 per cent more women than men affected. It says the total cost of dementia to New Zealand is now around $1.7b and will reach around $5b by 2050.

Although ‘dementia’ and ‘Alzheimer’s’ are used interchangeably, dementia is an umbrella term to describe a group of symptoms that change and damage the brain, and Alzheimer’s is a specific form of dementia.

The Aria Gardens project linking speech language therapy students with school pupils and aged care residents has been endorsed by Alzheimer’s New Zealand as part of World Alzheimer’s Month.

Working with people with dementia is just one aspect of speech and language therapy. Graduates assess and treat speech, language and swallowing disorders for people of all ages, including babies and children with speech and swallowing difficulties; people with brain injuries and those recovering from strokes; as well as older people with impaired cognition, or loss of muscle control as in Parkinson’s Disease.


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