Keep talking for longer: speech therapy to help people living with dementia stay in the conversation

Lead investigator: Dr Catherine Tattersall
Institution: University of Sheffield
Grant type: PhD studentship
Duration: 36 months
Amount: £68,980

Scientific Title: Evaluating a novel adaptation of word finding therapy for individuals with dementia

Why did we fund this project?

Comments from members of our Research Network

'Putting something in place for families to work together to maintain and encourage word retention for a long as possible is potentially hugely beneficial.'

'This proposal is well thought through with excellent potential benefits for many people with dementia. It is also a therapy that would not be expensive to get into the hands of carers nationally at the point of diagnosis (or preferably earlier) in a short instruction book.'

'Word finding therapy if it works would make a huge difference to people with dementia and make interaction with friends and family a lot easier.'

What do we already know?

Difficulties in communicating and using language affect a large number of people living with dementia. In particular, they may have trouble finding certain words such as day to day object names and personally important words such as family names. This makes it harder for them to get involved in conversation and be able to socialise. Researchers believe that social isolation could cause the symptoms of dementia to progress more rapidly. 

The idea for this project came about following suggestions from people with dementia who attended the Memory and Life Story Group. This is a project based in Sheffield in which speech and language therapy students help people living with dementia to develop their life stories, to help improve their communication. 

Members of the group told Dr Tattersall, a trained speech therapist, about the lack of therapy available to help them find the right words. The researchers and group members have collaborated to create the current project.

What does this project involve?

The study will involve pairs of people - one diagnosed with dementia and other is their supporter or carer. The PhD student on this project  will work with people affected by dementia and their carers to adapt an existing speech therapy method called 'Constraint-induced aphasia therapy' or CIAT.

They will adapt the method by combining aspects of CIAT which have been shown to be effective in other groups affected by speech difficulties. This includes repeated practice, home practice, practice in real conversations and using words that are meaningful to the person. By combining these CIAT techniques, Dr Tattersall will be creating a new speech therapy practice which is tailored to the person living with dementia. 

The people with dementia will be given a personalised vocabulary of words that they have chosen to work on such as important places, names and events. The research team will record conversations between the person with dementia and their chosen family member. This will act as a baseline so the researchers can compare how the person was communicating before and after the treatment. The participants will then take part in ten sessions led by the PhD student where they will communicate with their family and use activities such as word games. 

The family member will also learn how to support the person with dementia when they are struggling to find a word. The person with dementia and their family member will also practice what they have learned in clinic at home. 

The PhD student will check in on the participants' progress five times over the course of the project to see whether the training is helping the person with dementia to communicate more effectively. Dr Tattersall consulted with a specialist nurse working with people with dementia to choose assessment methods that would not be overly demanding or demoralising.

How will this benefit people with dementia?

The aim of this project is to help those living with dementia to keep talking for longer by refining a speech therapy that will help those living with dementia to find words more easily. If successful, this program will allow people living with dementia to communicate better and take part in conversations, helping them to remain socially engaged. It will also help them to have a better quality of life and it may help to reduce the effect of social isolation on progression of dementia symptoms.