When a major client and mentor tells you that you are wrong, it can be a humbling experience.

When I considered redefining our company’s focus as a “dementia-engagement platform” instead of a “resident-engagement platform,” one client’s response was very strong. Ultimately he said it didn’t make sense to add the word “dementia” to the focus. In his opinion, dementia wasn’t the problem but instead our industry’s inability to create meaningful and purposeful engagement for older adults in our care — no matter their current abilities.

“Dementia is not my problem,” he argued. “What is my problem is that we are failing our staff by not having tools available for them to help honor the needs and preferences of the residents we serve.”

It turns out, he was absolutely correct. Although there isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, there are many solutions available for addressing the problem of inadequate resident engagement.

For many older adults, the long-term care community they move into will be their last home. Helping them find purpose and joy in each moment is even more important. Without access to tools that can help them honor resident preferences, staff are unable to improve models of care. The list below outlines just some of the ways providers can truly deliver on the promise of person-centered care:

1. Advance Culture Change

Let’s reframe our conversation around end-of-life care. Approximately 17% of older adults will spend their last days in an institutional care setting. The best communities are those that understand that dying is part of living and that opportunities for joy can be available up until a person’s last breath.

Sadly, society often judges the value of an older person’s life based on what they can “still” do as a result of their current diagnosis. This is unfortunate since the alternative is a person-centered perspective that focuses on each person’s capacity to achieve what is most important to them at that particular time.

Too much time is spent trying to “fix” the problem of a diagnosis or condition when instead much of our energy needs to be directed at repairing the entire care system and celebrating every individual for who they are and what they can do right now. An important aspect of such culture change means allowing all community staff members, not just those in the activities department, to take the time to have meaningful conversations and interactions with older adults living there.

1. Commit to Workforce Development 

When it comes to training and supporting the workforce, there are many effective strategies to provide staff the tools they need to meaningfully engage their residents. One of my favorites is the Validation method, developed in the 1970s by Naomi Feil. It enables the caregiver to communicate effectively with the person living with cognitive change and helps “meet the person, wherever he or she might be” instead of bringing them back to reality. It also helps relieve their stress and enhance dignity and happiness in the final stages of life. 

1. Make Supportive Tools Accessible

Although technology shouldn’t be considered a one-size-fits-all solution, it can be helpful when communities use it to support a workflow or remove barriers for staff. Staff are still asked to do much of their resident-engagement work using paper-based tools. This makes it extremely difficult for them to truly meet the needs and preferences of all their residents with person-centered programming.

Technology can make support tools accessible to staff so efficiency is increased, which allows much more time for meaningful engagement. It can also increase the total number of engagement hours each resident receives. Consequently, resident isolation can be reduced and staff can tailor engagement activities to fit each person’s unique profile. 

It is far more helpful to consider what we can do to better serve people living with cognitive change rather than fixating solely on the “problem” of a diagnosis. When providers use this positive perspective, they give staff a more actionable agenda for their work each day.

This is not to say that Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are not a terrible thing; many of us have experienced it in a very close manner, for me and my family it has been devastating. But when working with older adults, we have everything to gain by focusing on what we can do versus what we can’t. The great news is that resident engagement is full of opportunity for that.

Charles de Vilmorin is the CEO and co-founder of Linked Senior.