A study based in England was released a couple of years ago, and its findings offer key insights into a simple way to improve dementia care. The main takeaway is that allowing dementia patients to have at least one hour of social interaction per week — when combined with a strong personalized care regimen — can decrease the risk of severe cognitive impairment and significantly improve their quality of life.
The large scale study was conducted by the University of Exeter, King's College London and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. With generous funding from the National Institute of Health Research, the study was published in the journal PLOS Medicine and focused on 800 patients across 69 homes in South London, North London, and Buckinghamshire. In addition to the improved health care outcomes, the researchers also found that social interaction as a method of managing dementia also saves money.
It is easy to understand why that would be: Rather than having hospitals, residential communities, and private households invest in expensive equipment, medicines, or therapeutic experiences, all it takes is a little bit of time to make patients feel more in control of their medical care.
Indeed, time is something that has been found to be lacking in terms of social interactions in a dementia care context. Previous health research has found that in many cases, patients with cognitive impairment resulting from dementia or Alzheimer's disease receive as little as two minutes of social time per day. This can unsurprisingly lead to feelings of social isolation that makes a patient's overall condition more difficult to manage.
The scientists who conducted the study are hoping to use the results of this new health research to roll out their approach at a national scale. By combining better health care outcomes with its additional cost saving benefits, it is their hope that patients with dementia or Alzheimer's disease will have access to more impactful care across the United Kingdom — and ultimately the globe.
The Benefits of Social Interaction
Social interaction for people experiencing cognitive decline is essential for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it gives them opportunities to keep their cognitive abilities in use on a more consistent basis — whether that means activating their memories to share stories or to simply stay connected with the language centers of their brains to keep their minds nimble. It also lets them maintain the kinds of social relationships that will help them feel like they are a part of a community.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is that social interaction provides dementia patients with opportunities to talk with health providers about their care, as well as their care preferences. According to Dr. Doug Brown, Director of Research at Alzheimer's Society, "A person-centred approach takes into account each individual's unique qualities, abilities, interests, preferences and needs.”
Not every preference can be accommodated, of course. At the end of the day, there is bound to be at least some compromise. But even going through that type of social exercise gives care providers valuable insights into the patient's condition — and how it might be changing over time — so that they can provide the type of care that is most appropriate to that specific person.
The result of this emphasis on social interaction, as the study was able to show, not only leads to a generally improved quality of life, but more specifically reduces the amount of aggression, agitation, and even pain a patient experiences.
Other studies have also shown that social connection can help with people with dementia. A separate health research team published a paper in 2017 that found that marriage decreases the risk that an older adult will develop dementia. People who never marry are 42% more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer's disease, and the risk for people who have been widowed increases by 20%. Social relationships — especially of the kind that last most of a lifetime and have decades of shared experiences to draw from — are hugely meaningful.
Taken together, all of this shows that incorporating social interaction into dementia care is a simple and effective method for managing cognitive decline among older adults. Home health care providers and family members alike can rely on communication skills to help their loved ones access the benefits of social interactions.
Effects of Cognitive Decline on Social Interactions
The benefits of social connection for people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease are numerous. But that does not mean that social interactions will be easy for them to manage. The effects of cognitive decline can be serious, as even mild cognitive impairment can lead to a range of symptoms, including but not limited to:
- Confusion and disorientation
- Memory loss
- Decline in coordination with motor functions
- Depression, anxiety, paranoia, and agitation
- Difficulty managing complex tasks, critical thinking skills, planning, and organization
- Difficulty with verbal expression
- Inappropriate behavior
- Personality changes
- Struggles with visual or spatial abilities
- Trouble with problem-solving or reasoning
Any one of these symptoms can make sociability much more difficult, and in many cases, dementia patients are dealing with more than one of these symptoms at a time. So all of them need to be on the minds of anyone who is in a care giving position. Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are complex conditions that are prone to taking unexpected turns as they develop. Keeping up with all of this can be a heavy burden for people who are caring for their loved ones in their own homes.
But these challenges are also why the research coming out now is so encouraging. Charting a more conversational and sociable path toward understanding your loved one's condition is a great way to identify the symptoms that are presenting themselves and opens up doors for discussing what the best way to administer care might look like. In the process, the patient gets to feel a sense of control over their treatment and also have the experience of asserting their personhood, gaining self confidence, and having their positions validated — all of which is so important for people with Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
Finally, social interaction is a low cost alternative to a number of other medical pathways. Continuous investment into just spending quality time can yield huge results in terms of improving your loved one's overall quality of life.
With new and improved home health care methodologies always emerging, care providers and family members can take encouragement that one of the most challenging conditions to manage — cognitive decline — can be better understood, and their efforts to manage it can be more impactful at a lesser cost. When paired with a strong program of individualized care, your loved ones can take part in the kinds of social interactions with their providers that will help to slow the progression of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, as well as give them an overall better quality of life.
Every family is different. At Keystone Health, we know that your family deserves the kind of care that is tailored to your needs. Our team of experienced professionals provide home health care services and will prioritize those needs above all else. If you or your loved one are in the Greater Boise area and want the best in home health care, start our New Patient Process today and we'll help you along at every step of the way.