Updated 17 November 2017

Social interaction can improve lives of dementia patients

A British study has found that social interaction and improved staff training benefits patients, while cutting costs.

Spending quality time with people we like can give us a real boost. This is especially true in the case of older people who suffer from dementia.

Just a slight increase in social interaction benefits older adults with dementia and lowers health care costs, a new British study suggests. "People with dementia who are living in nursing homes are among the most vulnerable in our society," said study leader Clive Ballard, a professor at the University of Exeter Medical School in England.

According to Health24, dementia is a lasting impairment of all mental functions, which can include learning, memory, orientation, language, behaviour and problem solving. Alzheimer's disease is one of the most common forms of dementia, which results in the progressive degeneration of the brain tissue.

Alzheimer's disease mostly affects people over the age of 65 and is often incorrectly referred to as senile dementia, although Alzheimer's is but one form of dementia.

The term dementia is used to describe a wide variety of symptoms which includes memory loss and significant confusion in familiar places. These symptoms often develop gradually and progressively. 

Person-centred approach

The outcome of the above-mentioned study was that social interaction is very important in the management of dementia. "Our outcomes show that good staff training and just one hour a week of social interaction significantly improves quality of life for a group of people who can often be forgotten by society," Ballard said in a university news release.

The study included more than 800 dementia patients living in 69 nursing homes in the UK. Two staff members at each home were trained to engage in simple social activities with the patients. This included talking to them about their interests and decisions about their care.

When combined with just one hour a week of social interaction, it improved patients' quality of life and eased their agitation, the researchers said. This strategy also saved money compared to standard care, according to the study. The results were scheduled for presentation at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in London.

"Taking a person-centred approach is about really getting to know the resident as an individual – knowing their interests and talking with them while you provide all aspects of care," said Dr Jane Fossey, of the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. "It can make a massive difference to the person themselves and their carers. We've shown that this approach significantly improves lives, reduces agitation and actually saves money, too."

More and more sufferers

Initial research done by the University of the Free State (UFS) indicates that the prevalence of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is only one of the causes, is considerably higher than initially estimated.

Clinical tests are now underway to confirm the findings of the study. The reason for this higher prevalence is that lower income groups often lack the resources, data and understanding to fully diagnose symptoms as dementia, therefore people suffer without knowing.

Managing dementia

According to a previous Health24 article, there is currently no treatment available  that can fully stop or cure dementia. However, new medications are available that can improve memory and delay the progression of the illness. There are also ways to manage the illness and the progressing symptoms:

  • Explore occupational therapy to improve the functioning during early stages of dementia.
  • Be there for the patient, whether you are a family member, friend or spouse.
  • Equip yourself fully with knowledge about dementia to understand the symptoms and to be emotionally strong to deal with it. 

Read more:

Symptoms of dementia 

Treating dementia

Causes of dementia