Skip to main content



commentary Commentary

Commentary: Small things make a big difference in giving dementia patients the power of choice

A person with advanced dementia may not be able to speak at all, making it difficult for those caring for them, two observers point out.

Commentary: Small things make a big difference in giving dementia patients the power of choice

72-year-old Kanemasa Ito (L) and his 68-year-old wife Kimiko who was diagnosed with dementia 11 years ago, chat at their home in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, Japan, April 6, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato)

BANGOR: Deterioration in the ability to produce complex speech or understand what people are asking, can make it difficult for people with dementia to make choices in conventional ways. 

It can be simple things like deciding which clothes to wear, or what to have for dinner. But when a person is in the more advanced stages of dementia, and may not be able to speak at all, it can be difficult for those caring for them to work out what their preferences would be.

To help the estimated 280,000 people with dementia who are living in UK care homes, family members are often asked what their loved ones would prefer and notes are made by staff. But we know that people’s preferences can change, sometimes on a daily basis, and are hard to predict even by people who know them really well.

Take the example of Mrs Jones. Care workers know that she likes both tea and coffee, but that she prefers tea. If Mrs Jones finds it difficult to tell them what she wants, how will they know that today is the day that Mrs Jones fancies a coffee?


Behavioural researchers have found that one way to figure out what a person would like is to measure how they respond when provided with different options at the same time. For example, to find out whether a person prefers a biscuit or a scone, the two treats are presented together for the person to choose.

As the person making the choice is unable to speak, physical behaviours such as reaching, touching, and picking up the item are watched to find out which they would like. 

Studies which use this method are usually done with people with dementia in their care home, and tailored to the individual taking part. 

While the researchers can find out what works best, it also means that people with dementia benefit directly from taking part in the study. Staff are also shown how to find out preferences – leading to immediate improvements in care.

READ: Dementia caregivers put on a brave front – while watching loved ones fade away, a commentary

The World Health Organisation says most of those around the world who suffer from some form of dementia do so because of Alzheimer's. (Photo: AFP/Sébastien Bozon) The World Health Organization says 36 million people around the world suffer from some form of dementia, most of them with Alzheimers AFP/Sébastien Bozon

Though it seems like a simple thing to put into practice, this “choice” method is not currently part of the UK care system. 

By observing what people do rather than what they say, care staff can get a more objective idea of what people like, measure their preferences daily, track how they change, and – most importantly – give people with dementia and communication issues more of a voice in their daily lives.


Previous findings from US-based care home studies showed that people with dementia prefer activities over food items when given a choice between them. For example, people chose activities such as jigsaws, crosswords, and crochet over treats such as custard tarts and pork pies.

This might be because one risk for people with dementia in long-term care is that they can spend a lot of time unengaged. It can be difficult to find lots of meaningful activities for care settings, and opportunities for conversation can be reduced. 

So activities become more valuable because they give people something to do and to talk about with other people, while food might become less valuable due to sensory changes associated with dementia such as changes in ability to taste and swallow.

Putting this into practice, we now know that if a person with dementia is to be given food and activity choices, they should be done separately – rather than at the same time, like the biscuit and scone example – as preference for taking part in an activity might overshadow a food choice. 

In the long run, this means that staff don’t learn what people’s food preferences are, too.


People with developmental disabilities often develop dementia at a younger age, and are more likely to develop it than those who do not have a developmental disability. They are often diagnosed late, too, due to “diagnostic overshadowing”, where changes in behaviour are attributed to their disability rather than dementia.

An autistic boy participates in activities at a medical centre to test his development. (AFP/Jean-Philippe Ksiazek) File photo:

READ: Hard to grapple with dementia when early signs are often neglected, a commentary

Previous research has found that people with developmental disabilities will often choose food over activities when a choice between the two is offered (the opposite of people with dementia). 

However, no one has yet looked at whether this preference shifts when people with developmental disabilities develop dementia. If we know how preferences change, we can ensure that care settings tailor their support.

We all value having choices, and our work is focused on evaluating and developing ways to ensure that people with dementia and developmental disabilities continue to be offered choices, even in the smallest of ways.

Rebecca Sharp is senior Lecturer in Psychology, and Zoe Lucock is PhD Researcher, both at Bangor University. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation. Read it here

Source: CNA/nr


Also worth reading