Tuesday, 27 March 2018 08:00

Creative communication strategies for caregivers and patients

When a loved one falls ill, whether they are a parent, sibling or your life partner, communication becomes vital to managing both their illness and your relationship.

The honest truth is that your relationship will change during the time you care for a loved one, it will go through ups and downs and you may find that the communication strategy you used before illness set in, just doesn’t work like it used to.

For couples who have spent decades of their lives together, dementia and Alzheimer’s are diseases which can completely ravage communication between spouses. Not due to a lack of trying, but merely as a side-effect of these diseases, a new communication strategy will need to be adopted.

The CARE research study

A recent study was carried out between a number of couples over a 10-week period, with the intention of proving that ‘practice does make perfect’ when it comes to communication between a spouse suffering with dementia and a spousal caregiver. The study was aimed at improving their communication strategy over this 10-week period.

The home-intervention study was headed up by researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s nursing college, and is a first of its kind. The study used various methods of coaching and role-playing during the 10-week period to assess communication issues and improve overall communication between spouses.

The programme known as CARE (Caring About Relationships and Emotions) was designed to improve facilitative communication in caregivers and sociable communication in care receivers. Along with this, the programme was also aimed at reducing disabling behaviour, such as criticism, in caregivers and unsociable behaviour in care receivers.

Coaching effective communication

During the intervention, researchers addressed issues in communication with caregivers. Some of these issues included their own self-awareness when communicating, their lack of understanding on how to communicate with dementia patients and their emotional reactions to communication.

During this time, caregivers were also taught how to use communication strategies to maintain a caring and supportive relationship. Role play between researchers and caregivers was used to demonstrate effective communication, while caregivers were also coached on effective communication styles.

Over the 10-week period, researchers also made sure to chat with care receivers, encouraging them to openly express their feelings, thoughts, needs and communication preferences to their caregiving spouse.

CARE study findings

By following the 10 weekly modules set out in the manual provided by researchers, couples in the research trial showed incredible improvement in their communication with one another. Separate weekly meetings were held with each caregiver and care receiver, while couples were then asked to converse unobserved. These sessions where videotaped and analysed for feedback.

One of the major key findings of the study was that care receivers showed the most improvement in their overall communication. This is truly profound for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients who would naturally tend to struggle with communication more so than a caregiving spouse.

Care receivers displayed significant improvement in their social communication, both verbal and non-verbal. They also appeared to be far more engaged during communication, highly responsive, alert, and focused and even maintained a sense of humour.

Overall, caregivers showed a significant improvement in communication relating to instructions, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding on how to effectively communicate with their spouses.

A lead researcher had this to say:

"By teaching caregivers about their partners' ongoing needs for closeness, comfort, inclusion, love and respect, they can make a difference in how they perceive their spouses and how facilitative communication, both verbal and non-verbal, can contribute to their well-being."

It just goes to show – all is not lost. With a little patience, kindness and understanding of one another, communication can be mastered.

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