Residents of assisted living communities who have dementia experience improved quality of life when care providers approach them as individuals and include them with all residents in activities, according to the early results of a five-year study from the National Institute on Aging.

The project’s goal is to identify best care practices for creating and maintaining meaningful engagement among residents with dementia. In the initial stage of the study, researchers conducted interviews and observed 33 assisted living residents with varying dementia types and levels of functional ability over one year in 2019. Participants represented a rage of gender, age, race and/or ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Typical activity programming can leave people with dementia on the sidelines, said Georgia State University gerontology researcher Candace Kemp, Ph.D. But there are ways to change that dynamic, she said. Kemp and her colleagues found that actively listening and observing verbal and non-verbal cues was key to connecting and meeting residents on their own terms. 

An analysis of their findings identified four approaches that successfully promote meaningful engagement, Kemp said. These include: knowing the person, connecting with and meeting people where they are, being in the moment, and viewing all encounters as opportunities.

The takeaway? Caregivers should not assume that people with dementia can’t benefit from an activity because they are not able to respond in the same way as other residents, Kemp concluded. 

The results may be especially relevant during the pandemic, while visits by family and friends remain restricted at many assisted living communities along with group activities and mealtime gatherings, the researchers said. Increasing meaningful engagement with residents “holds promise for offsetting the negative effects of social distancing for residents and for reducing care partner strain,” they wrote.

The ongoing study, “Meaningful Engagement and Quality of Life among Assisted Living Residents with Dementia,” involves residents and their care partners in assisted living communities and personal-care homes in and near Atlanta. 

Initial results were published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology.