Opinion: The power of empathy – rethinking dementia care to avoid desperate measures

Sarah Yeates, Chief Executive Officer, Caladenia Dementia Care

In this guest post, Sarah Yeates, CEO of Caladenia Dementia Care, shares invaluable insights on the urgent need for improved care and support for individuals living with dementia.

Dementia is in the news more than ever, and often not in a positive light. As we lived through the global pandemic – Aged Care more than any other sector as a whole was maligned and called out for poor procedures and the underperformance of the minority.

The tragic story in the news of the 95-year-old lady who was living with dementia and was tasered in the middle of the night is at the forefront of every aged care email and newsletter this week.

What on earth happened that we needed to taser a frail old person, in the middle of the night? There will be professionals who look into this incident, and it’s not for me or anyone else to say what did or didn’t happen at this stage.

In conversations with my staff about this incident – we have talked about what might have happened and what we might have done in similar circumstances.

A person with dementia who may be confused during the day is likely to be more confused at night. A person living with dementia who is walking about at night is not doing this for no reason. I wonder what the unmet need was here?

I would have expected my team to ask themselves – what was she looking for? Was she hungry? Confused about the time of day? Was she in pain or uncomfortable? Professional care staff should be using the PECT (Person, Environment, Communication, Task) model of unmet needs or similar.

Using such a tool may have prevented emergency services from being called in the first place. If for instance a person is up and walking in the middle of the night, and staff are able to calmly problem solve to find an unmet need (hunger, thirst, loneliness, discomfort, looking for something, trying to go home), the situation may have been solved before it escalated.

Professional caregivers who work with people living with dementia need to have empathy for the person and be taught to look behind the behaviour to the reason for the behaviour. Too often I hear people living with dementia labelled as “aggressive”, “non-compliant” or “attention seeking”.

A person with dementia is not, as a part of their disease process naturally aggressive or attention-seeking. A person with dementia has lost the capacity to fully understand the world around them and often is reacting in a very normal way to a situation where they are frustrated, scared or angry because too much is being asked of them, or the world is not making sense.

When staff are trained (and given the permission and the time!) to work through a model of potential unmet needs, to change their own. communication techniques and behaviour rather than expecting the person living with dementia to change what they cannot, we can potentially have a situation where an incident is de-escalated before it gets to the point of resorting to emergency services.

Valuing and Investing in aged care staff, prioritising dementia training and teaching staff members these tools and techniques, empowering staff and giving them the chance to role-play and practice what they have learned, and allowing staff the space and time to de-escalate a potentially catastrophic situation for both staff and people living with dementia will go a long way to helping prevent the tragedy that occurred this week.

If there is no other way to deal with a confused elderly person than to taser them – we have failed not just this lady – but all people living with dementia.


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