Language skills: Keeping in contact with people affected by dementia

Volunteers, staff and interpreters are supporting people from a range of communities during the pandemic.

For people with dementia, the pandemic has meant less social contact with their friends, family and community. We introduced Companion Calls to help fight the negative impact that this greater isolation has on a person’s health and wellbeing. 

Trained Companion Call volunteers make regular phone calls to check in and have a friendly chat, to help people feel more connected and less lonely. 

To make sure that these calls are supporting people from a range of communities, we’ve so far signed up volunteers who speak 29 different languages between them. 

‘Companion Calls have been a tremendous help to people with dementia throughout the pandemic, but even more so for those whose first or preferred language isn’t English,’ says Bridget Thompson, Volunteering Development Co-ordinator. 

‘They can have a relaxed and friendly conversation, and making a cultural connection with a volunteer can be great for reminiscence.’

Bridget Thompson

Bridget Thompson.

All things Welsh 

Eiry Thomas in Carmarthenshire, south-west Wales, is a longstanding Society volunteer who has been making Companion Calls in Welsh since June. 

‘I’ve felt for a long time that people with dementia are often forgotten,’ says Eiry, who phones five women every week. 

‘Four of the ladies live in south-west Wales, so I know the area. We chat about lots of things – the weather, how they feel, COVID restrictions, radio and TV programmes, sport (especially when Wales is involved). I just hope it brings a bit of happiness to them.’ 

Although the women can all speak English, they requested a volunteer who could talk to them in Welsh. Eiry asked them about the importance of having the calls in Welsh and translated their responses. 

‘It’s important to use the language of my country,’ says one. 

Another adds, ‘I was brought up to speak, write and read Welsh. Welsh was everything to my parents.’ 

One of the women said that all her friends and carers speak Welsh, while another said that she had an interest in ‘all things Welsh’. 

‘It’s important to give a service in people’s first language,’ said the son of one of the women.

Quality time 

For some people, receiving support in their first language is not only about making the experience more comfortable and effective for them, but to make communication possible. 

Diana Reisgies Baez found out about Companion Calls through her employer Santander, one of our corporate partners. She makes regular calls in Spanish to a woman with dementia who speaks very little English.

‘We talk about Spanish food, her family history, music – I found a Spanish song for her,’ says Diana. 

‘She tells me that the calls make her happy and help her forget about her worries and pain.’

Diana Reisgies Baez with her mother

Diana Reisgies Baez with her mum.

Diana’s mother has Alzheimer’s and lives by herself in Spain. 

‘I know how hard it’s been for Mum during lockdown, so when I had the opportunity to help someone here, I didn’t think twice,’ says Diana. ‘I’m injecting some energy and kindness into their day.’ 

Diana translated a message she received from the daughter of the woman she phones. It reads, ‘Thank you so much for the quality time you give to Mum. Because of your voice and the way you talk to her, she can tell you’re a wonderful person with a heart full of love. We’re really grateful.’

Cultural understanding 

It’s not only our volunteers who provide culturally appropriate support in different languages. Anuja Jalota is a Dementia Support Worker in Wolverhampton who has been keeping in phone contact with people affected by dementia who speak Punjabi. 

‘It’s particularly hard for a carer looking after their spouse, as they have no outlet during lockdown,’ she says. 

‘Talking to someone who understands what they are going through is comforting for them. My understanding of the culture and being able to have a conversation in their first language also goes a long way.’ 

Anuja has received many appreciative comments in Punjabi. ‘You have cheered me up,’ said one person. Another said, ‘I feel lighter having spoken to you.’

Anuja Jalota

Anuja Jalota.

Full access 

For people calling our Dementia Connect support line, we can use a service called The Big Word to interpret conversations into the language that’s best for them. 

Jane Kinnaird, a Dementia Connect Adviser, received a call from a man who was struggling to communicate in English, asking if there was anyone there who could speak Mandarin. Using The Big Word, within 10 minutes she was speaking to him through an interpreter about his memory concerns. 

‘I feel that if he needed support from us again, he would be comfortable to call and know he could easily communicate his needs and have full access to our service,’ says Jane. 

For us to use this service, a caller needs to say the name of their preferred language – in English – and leave their own name and a number to call back on. 

‘It’s good to know that those who might be able to express themselves better in another language are able to come to us for support and advice,’ says Jane.

What can you do to help?

Help us to train Companion Call volunteers to support more people affected by dementia from all communities.

Donate now

Dementia together magazine: Dec 20/Jan 21

Dementia together magazine is for all Alzheimer’s Society supporters and anyone affected by the condition.
Subscribe now
Dementia together magazine is for all Alzheimer’s Society supporters and anyone affected by the condition.
Subscribe now

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