Low engagement? Give them CONTROL.


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I often hear from care partners and dementia care professionals alike that “getting the person living with dementia to do something is really hard!” While I have a number of tips about engagement in particular, one of my favorites is this: give over control. You may just find that the person is actually better at the task than you are, or in the very least, they enjoy the task more when you aren’t hovering!

Here’s a short story from my time as a Dementia Care Director

It was time to set up the Christmas trees around the community. I feared that I would have to do it all myself, and the task was daunting. Boxes and boxes of ornaments, lights, and decorations were piled up in our outdoor shed. 

After the main tree had been set up in the foyer, I stood staring at it. There were probably 100 ornaments to sort through, and I knew it would take me forever.

Just then, one of my residents, Dorothy, walked by. 

“Oh, what a lovely tree,” she said.

“Dorothy, do you want to help me decorate?” I asked, hopeful that she’d engage for engagement’s sake, but also because working on this tree alone felt impossible. Dorothy was one of our community’s retired teachers, but she also has a knack for planning events and decorating. 

Over the next 45 minutes, Dorothy sorted, hung, and arranged ornaments and lights.

“Why don’t we put a bunch of these red ornaments in a ceramic bowl and put it on the table here? That would look nice,” she suggested. “Oh, and how about these reindeer? Let’s put these here.”

She was right.

I felt like a decorator’s apprentice, and I was more than happy to feel that way. When a person living with dementia is doing a task that they love and understand, it’s almost as though their cognitive challenges evaporate.

Talking to Dorothy and watching her decorate was like watching a professional at work. Her movements were smooth and deliberate; her eyes keen and experienced. She even moved a few of the ornaments I’d added to the tree when she thought I wasn’t looking. That part cracked me up, and I had to keep from laughing to myself.

By the time we were done (I say “we” but it was mostly her!) the foyer looked beautiful. 

Have you read my second book about activities and programming in dementia care? Check out Creative Engagement here! And please consider leaving a 5-star review if you have read it!
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4 thoughts on “Low engagement? Give them CONTROL.”

    1. Right, the shower or other activities of daily living can be a different story. You may need to provide step-by-step instructions with those.

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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