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Keywords:

  • communication skills;
  • dementia care;
  • empathic curiosity

Accessible summary

  • Empathic curiosity is a standpoint that we adopt when we focus our attention on the perceptual experiences of people with dementia, as they are experiencing them in the here and now.
  • Adopting an empathic and curious stance may help to establish the common ground for meaningful communication and help to cultivate relationships that are based upon equality and common understanding, rather than power and dependency.
  • Four key sets of communication skills can support this approach: (1) asking short open questions in the present tense; (2) picking up on emotional cues; (3) giving time and space for the person with dementia to find their words and share responsibility for steering the course of a conversation; and (4) exploring the use of metaphors.
  • Providing access to training and supervision that supports these communication skills may be an essential element of building an informed and effective dementia care workforce.

Abstract

Over the past two decades the advocates of person-centred approaches to dementia care have consistently argued that some of the negative impacts of dementia can be ameliorated in supportive social environments and they have given lie to the common but unfounded, nihilistic belief that meaningful engagement with people with dementia is impossible. This discussion paper contributes to this welcome trend by exploring how carers can use empathic curiosity to establish the common ground that is necessary to sustain meaningful engagement with people who have mild to moderate dementia. The first section of the paper gives a brief theoretical introduction to the concept of empathic curiosity, which is informed by perceptual control theory and applied linguistics. Three case examples taken from the literature on dementia care are then used to illustrate what empathic curiosity may look like in practice and to explore the potential impact that adopting an empathic and curious approach may have.