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The Art of Conversation: More important now than ever

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approaches to dementia care, communication, dementia tips
The Daily Sparkle

We believe passionately in the power of daily activities and diversions for people living with dementia. The Daily Sparkle reminiscence newspaper was specifically designed as a reaction to what we felt was a lack of daily stimulation for those people living with dementia. We wanted to provide something that was a daily dose of fun, interesting and enjoyable content, and something that would ensure people weren’t sitting alone in care homes, retreating inside themselves. Crucially, we wanted to provide something that got people talking, that ensured a regular and continual human connection, something so vital for us all.

Reminiscence performs many functions – at its most basic level, it is using familiar, safe topics to generate happy memories. It can also work well as a tool for life review and life story work, finding out more about who the person used to be, thus helping to reinforce their sense of self and positive identity. But, perhaps the most important aspect of using reminiscence, is to start conversations.

Informal reminiscence includes talking about experiences we have in common or have shared. Reminiscence materials like photos on the wall, objects that are easy to see and touch, music and dance, and even The Daily Sparkle newspapers, offer spontaneous opportunities to start conversations – between residents, between carers and residents, and even between family, friends and residents. These conversations are vital for building confidence and helping someone to retain a sense of self-worth and wellbeing.

We don't always recognise that people can get out of the ‘habit’ of talking to one another, having been psychologically or physically isolated. The ‘art of conversation’ is a skill which needs to be practised, and the longer we go ‘without’ regular conversation, the more likely we are to lose confidence in our ability to converse socially and build relationships. Starting with safe, easy topics – such as old favourite radio shows, vintage dress patterns or cars from the 40s – is a great way to get people to open up and start talking again. Often reminiscence sessions will reveal that a member of the group has a personal connection to the event or subject being discussed – perhaps they drove steam trains or helped build Waterloo Bridge – and this can lead to a host of questions, interesting chats and more reminiscence.

Music, songs and quizzes are also a great way to use reminiscence – people’s recall for music is extraordinary, and even playing the starting bars of an old favourite tune can have half a room humming along in seconds. Sessions like this can be themed around a singer or a particular year – getting people to talk about what music they bought, what they liked to dance to, what music they played at their wedding, what concerts or dances they went to and which other singers they liked, can be the starting point for a busy, joyful reminiscence session.

These older, happier memories are usually much easier for people with dementia to recall, and remind them of a time in their life when they felt stronger, more powerful and more like themselves. Sharing this aspect of their identity is an empowering process and can help them with developing friendships and feeling less isolated. If someone can reach out and share a common memory with another person, even a family member, it can open doors to whole conversations and renewed connections.

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Tom Dening

Peter Ashley died on 10th November 2015. This brings to an end a remarkable life and he is much missed by the people who knew him. He made a great contribution to how dementia is perceived, spoken about and responded to.

Elizabeth Kozlowski

Dear Tom,

Karen Harrison Dening

The OPAL programme (Identifying And Addressing Shared Challenges In Conducting Health And Social Care Research For Older People) was supported by The Newton Fund Researcher Links and funded by the British Council and the Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).