Exploring the impact of social skills on quality of life for people with dementia

So much of our communication is non-verbal, facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice – but what happens when a person is no longer able to assess the meaning of these non-verbal communications because of dementia or another cognitive impairment and what impact does that have on relationships and quality of life?

Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle’s School of Psychology, Dr Michelle Kelly, hopes to find out. 

As a PhD student, Dr Kelly, had seen many people with a traumatic brain injury who also had impairments in social skills. As she completed her PhD she commenced work in a Specialist Mental Health Service for Older People and noticed similar social skills impairments in her clients with dementia. 

Researcher Dr Michelle Kelly tests social cue recognition with a person living with dementia

With the help of an Dementia Australia Dementia Research Foundation - Victoria grant in 2013, Dr Kelly developed a tool to identify if people living with dementia had difficulty processing emotions and other social cues.

Recently, Dr Kelly was awarded an Dementia Australia Dementia Research Foundation - Victoria Cecilia Margaret Hudson Dementia Research grant to continue that work and expand on the tool to see if the difficulties processing social cues found by people living with dementia impact on quality of life and quality of relationships for the person and their care partner.

“We really weren’t addressing the issue of social functioning,” Dr Kelly said.

“What I observed was we were trying to re-engage people in social activity, but generally speaking if you don’t have the skills, it’s very difficult for it to be a successful and rewarding experience.”

Dr Kelly said that so much of our communication can be non-verbal, facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice – if a person is no longer able to assess the meaning of these non-verbal communications that it can lead to misunderstandings, miscommunication, increased carer stress, and eventual breakdown in relationship.

“If the person is unable to display empathy the carer will often say things like “they don’t care about my feelings anymore” or “they’re not the person I knew” - some of the attributions carers make are because we don’t give them the information they need,” Dr Kelly said.

Dr Kelly hopes to develop a training program for carers which will give them a better understanding of the challenges they may be experiencing and the skills to communicate successfully in different ways.

“For example, if the person with the diagnosis of dementia is having difficulty picking up on emotion from the voice or face, we can tell the carer that they need to use the words “I’m frustrated or I’m sad” for the person with dementia to understand how they’re feeling,” Dr Kelly said.

Dr Kelly said the AADRF grants were an immense help in developing her skills as a new researcher and with links to Dementia Australia opened up networking opportunities and access to participants for the research projects. 

What advice would Dr Kelly have for someone considering a career in dementia research?

“Talk to lots of people and ask lots of questions,” she said.

“I learn so much from people in so many different areas. People who have experienced dementia either directly or indirectly, people with a diagnosis of dementia, caring for a person with a diagnosis of dementia or knowing someone with a diagnosis of dementia. Students too continue to surprise me in terms of their experiences.”  

Dr Michelle Kelly “I love the work with people with greater life experience - their wisdom and awareness of what’s going on and what’s happened in the world.”

Dr Kelly said the future of dementia research was heading in lots of promising directions, as researchers and funding streams diversify across areas like genetic, psycho-social, carer wellbeing and quality of life to give the best chance of making an impact for people living with dementia, their carers and family. 

Getting to know Michelle:

  • Favourite takeaway: Thai
  • Best way to spend a Friday night: Thai food, a glass of wine and The Living Room
  • A good book you’ve read recently: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
  • Exercise of choice: too hard to choose one... Tennis, Barre, Yoga, Walking, stand-up paddle boarding