Engaging With People Living With Dementia

engaging with people living with dementia

Tips for students going on placement

Often on placement students have asked for support with how to engage with people living with dementia. For some of you your placement may be the very first time that you interact with a person living with dementia whilst for others you may be familiar needs of a person living with dementia due to a family member living with this diagnosis.

As the number of people living with dementia continue to rise (in part due the increased life expectancy) nurses and allied health staff need to be adequately equipped to support people living with dementia. In this blog I will share a few foundational concepts with you as you journey towards understanding how to engage with people living with dementia.

Firstly, let’s have a look at Kitwood’s (1997) concept of personhood, the foundation of his model of person-centered care.  To understand what is one’s personhood begin by thinking of 10 things which describe you best. These may include what you value, what you don’t like, an important component of your life history, what makes you happy, what you fear and who are special people in your life. Have you got your 10 items? Great…. now imagine that everyone you met knew these things about you and were immediately able to share in what makes you happy, ensure you don’t have to encounter your fears and show an interest in the fact that you are proud of a past achievement. It would be wonderful would it not?  your personhood involves what makes you uniquely you and having others value that. Kitwood (1997) identifies that to ensure another’s personhood is fulfilled we need to interact in a way which ensures recognition, respect and trust.



Initially working with someone who is living with dementia may make a student feel anxious as they do not want to ‘do the wrong thing’ or, a student may feel inadequate as how they try to engage with the person but may not initially achieve the desired outcome. Students may feel they are not ‘succeeding’ and become concerned about what other staff or supervisors may be thinking. In reality, one of the best ways to learn to engage with people with dementia is by not allowing these thoughts to prevent you from continuing to try, as the more you engage the more aware you will be come of the persons needs and how best to meet these. So back to Kitwood (1997)…..starting off by trying to learn more about the person you are working with will allow you to be able to relate to them as a person living with dementia who has many strengths and abilities. Kitwood (1997) encourages us to meet the person’s need for inclusion, identity, occupation, comfort and attachment; and in so doing enhance their sense of well-being. But how do we do this…… through understanding each of these concepts, enacting them consistently and embracing person-centred care. If you are interested in further understanding these concepts and person-centered care please refer to this video from AlzeihmersWA (2019): 


Secondly, develop your knowledge of effective communication skills used when engaging with a people living with dementia to ensure you to start off your placement on the best possible note. Speaking in a warm tone with short simple sentences and using hand gestures to convey information is an example of an effective form of communication. If you have the time to prepare for your placement by watching videos made by Teepa Snow, a dementia expert who demonstrates these communication skills. The following help sheet provides further information on communication with people living with dementia: https://www.dementia.org.au/sites/default/files/helpsheets/Helpsheet-CaringForSomeone01-Communication_english.pdf


Lastly, spend some time understanding the role of various people who engage with the person living with dementia. Occupational therapists, speech pathologists, physiotherapists, nurses and music therapists are just a few examples of health professionals who play an important role in facilitating reablement for the person living with dementia. Whilst on placement accessing these various services will allow you to understand how interprofessional work can be of benefit to people living with dementia. Working with a person living with dementia often involves working with their carer too. Carers play an incredibly valuable role and being mindful of their needs is necessary to provide holistic care. Read Graeme’s story about caring for his wife Vicki who lives with dementia here: https://www.dementia.org.au/about-us/news-and-stories/news/personal-account-caring-someone-dementia

As the need for practitioners who have skills to work supportively with people living with dementia increases, may you take every opportunity available to develop this skill whilst on placement and reap the rewards from engaging with people living with dementia.



Kitwood, T. M. (1997). Malignant social psychology. In Dementia reconsidered: The person comes first. Buckingham, England: University Press.

Kitwood, T. M. (1997). On being a person. In Dementia reconsidered: The person comes first. Buckingham, England: Open University Press.

Charmaine Swanson

Associate Lecturer, Rural Health Community Placements

Going Rural Health Ballarat

Occupational Therapist