A New Model for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care

by Mary Keen


When a person, diagnosed with dementia, begins to show more symptoms, their loved ones often feel helpless, causing them to withdraw from the unsettling situation...and the person. Fortunately, more advanced techniques have been developed that help build genuine and positive connections between the person with dementia, their loved ones and professional caregivers. This new model of care is based on the treatment of the whole person, not the condition.

“We are pretty hopeful about this movement toward person-centered care,” says Bethany Relyea, M.A., a social worker in charge of Lieberman Center’s Alzheimer’s Special Care Unit. She explains,“We really act on the belief that, even if a person can’t express something in language, he or she still has the capacity and need to connect and relate to others. We are moving away from the disease-based model and looking at the strength-based model. It’s up to us to find those entry points for connection and enjoyment.”

It is all about one’s approach and engagement with individuals living with dementia. Now professional caregivers attempt to be in tune with a person’s behavior, to look at what made a patient feel anxious or behave in a distressing manner. “We have moved away from the attitude that ‘it’s just their dementia talking’ to one of ‘there are legitimate human emotions there,’ and it is up to us to understand the meaning behind the behavior and engage based on a deeper understanding of possible unmet needs and emotions,” continues Relyea.

This model employs the philosophy that every moment is an opportunity for engagement. People living with dementia do not have to also live with the pain of isolation and loneliness. They may respond to many forms of engagement. For example, music can make them change from a closed off and expressionless state to singing and smiling.

As Relyea says, the key is to find “entry points” for connecting with an individual with dementia. This can be elusive sometimes, but validating emotions and perceptions is essential. Professional caregivers now approach the patient from a positive perspective. Instead of correcting false perceptions or statements, there is an emphasis on being “present,” entering their world and looking into the content of what is being said. “We have to look for meaning within their reality and respond in a way that validates on an emotional level,” explains Relyea. “This approach allows a patient to feel safe, understood and connected with others, something we all want.”

Trust is also important for persons with dementia; it becomes the building block for creating a successful care environment, strengthening the quality of the relationship among persons with dementia, family members and professional caregivers. This relationship-based care model facilitates meaningful interactions in day-to-day life which contributes to an overall increased quality of life.

It all boils down to the fact that people—including those with dementia—need human connection, security and stimulation.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of LIFE, CJE SeniorLife's quarterly magazine.