by Pam Leonard, LBSW, CDP
Socializing with others helps most of us feel better about ourselves and about the world. For people affected by dementia, social interaction has a proven additional benefit: improved communication and cognitive function.
This is certainly the case at CARES, CJFS’ respite program for people affected by memory and movement disorders such as dementia and Parkinson’s. CARES, which stands for Caring for Adults through Respite, Enrichment & Socialization, provides a friendly environment where casual conversation, laughter and camaraderie are the norm. Every day, we witness the way that social activities stimulate clearer thinking and more effective communication among our participants. In fact, I have noticed that for many of our clients, socialization seems to be more beneficial than the trivia and other adapted games we play.
Our participants’ caregivers tell us that, at home, they often struggle to engage their loved ones in conversation and other activities. They wonder why their loved ones seem more eager to join in conversations or activities at CARES than at home.
One reason is that, in a group setting, people with dementia or Parkinson’s feel empowered to choose whether and how they want to participate. A one-on-one conversation can provoke anxiety in someone who isn’t sure they’ll be able to effectively communicate; conversely, in a group conversation, listening quietly is always an option. This freedom of choice often helps participants relax enough that they ultimately decide to join the conversation, game or other activity.
The issue of choice is important, because the loss of choice and autonomy often goes hand in hand with a loss of cognitive function. At CARES, participants have a few hours during which they get to decide how much, and how, they want to interact with others.
In addition, humor and laughter are a constant at CARES. The way laughter stimulates our brain is different than the way it is stimulated by recalling and reminiscing. As others share creative ideas, we are encouraged to be more creative and expressive ourselves.
People with dementia often have difficulty communicating – and communicating can be easier in a social setting. At CARES, laughter, hand motions, singing and other non-verbal forms of communication often take the place of speech. Without words, participants are able to connect with others and feel included. The energy of a group setting, on its own, can trigger our brains to be more alert and active; as a result, we want to participate.
In a social setting, those with dementia are able to be accepting of others and be accepted. This opportunity helps restore the self-respect and self-esteem that can be lost when we lose our cognitive abilities.
Finally, socialization can give dementia patients a much-needed opportunity to help others. At CARES, participants help each other and cheer each other on throughout the day, whether we are singing, creating artwork, or playing games. When they help others, our participants realize they are still needed and still have something to offer socially. When we lose our ability to think clearly, we do not lose our desire to be productive, to have purpose, and to be accepted.
For volunteer opportunites at CARES, contact Lise Grace, firstname.lastname@example.org, 205.410.1958.