Harnessing the power of observation

I feel very strongly that one of the most important attributes anyone providing care and support to a person with dementia can have is the ability to observe.

In our helter-skelter, multi-tasking lives it’s easy to lose the quietly reflective quality of observation. Observation cannot be rushed, cannot be combined with anything else if it is to be truly effective, isn’t remotely technological, and may seem both outdated and old fashioned. Surely we need to be stepping in and ‘doing things’ to be providing optimum care and support – right?

Wrong! When you’re providing care and support for a person with dementia, whether you’re a family carer or a care worker, stepping in may well be the worst thing you can do. Of course we need to protect a person with dementia who might walk in front of a car, or burn themselves on the cooker, but in the vast majority of day-to-day circumstances talking a step back can be infinitely more helpful than getting involved.

One of the biggest problems people caring for a person with dementia often site is difficulties understanding the person. Those difficulties mostly arise because of limited or confusing verbal communication – the person with dementia is trying to articulate something, but the person listening to them cannot understand what they need or want.

Often the person providing support will then step in, make assumptions, and undertake an action that they think is needed. Sometimes they may have made exactly the right call, particularly if they are a family carer who has deep personal knowledge of their loved one or a care worker who has built up a really positive rapport with the person, but on other occasions the situation can rapidly unravel.

What then results is that the person with dementia doesn’t have their needs met (which is mistaken for them displaying ‘challenging behaviour’, something I wrote about here), and a vicious circle of frustration ensues for all concerned. With more finely tuned observation skills, it’s possible that such an unhappy episode could have been avoided.

Everyone who is providing care and support for a person with dementia wants to have that deep personal knowledge of the family carer, or the positive rapport of the studious care worker that I describe above. To get those levels of knowledge and rapport, however, involves many different skills, of which observation is a crucial one. 

Granted the family carer often has the benefit of years, if not a lifetime of knowledge about their loved one which, incidentally, is why family carers are so immensely valuable in society, but someone without that knowledge, like a health or care professional, can help themselves and therefore the person with dementia just by understanding the power of observation and interpreting the learning that comes from it.

One of the most widely recognised methods for enhancing dementia care, ‘Dementia Care Mapping’from the University of Bradford, has observation as a founding principle. In CQC inspections, the ‘SOFI tool’ is widely used – this was also developed by the University of Bradford and again is founded on observation. Meanwhile, observation features in the 10 facilitation skills that is part of the ‘Great Interactions’ training given to the staff employed by one of my consultancy clients, MacIntyre. 

So, far from being outdated or irrelevant, observation is actually a vital tool. It literally opens your eyes to what is really happening with a person, and is invaluable when a person’s dementia progresses and you need even more finely tuned skills to help provide them with optimum care and support. The reason it doesn’t feature in care settings as standard practice is that it is time consuming.

We all know how over-stretched social care staff are, and many providers simply do not staff their shifts to allow care workers to take time to observe and reflect upon what they are seeing. Budgetary constraints really are the enemy of observation, as is the need to ‘look busy’. You simply cannot ‘look busy’ if you are observing a person carefully and accurately.

What you are likely to learn from observation is immense, however. Good observation skills can tell you how a person is feeling, what they want or need and how you can best respond to them. It can also give you clues to their personality, their likes and dislikes, and the ways in which you can seamlessly integrate yourself into their life without being obtrusive, interfering and controlling. 

Observation is fantastic at promoting independence, but the very essence of good observation is about watching rather than doing. We are far too fond of doing things to or for people, without giving them the space and time to potentially accomplish those tasks themselves, or indeed go some way towards accomplishing them.

What observation isn’t is the tool of those who want to stare at a person with dementia. People with dementia deserve dignity and respect, not to be treated like exhibits in a zoo.  Observation should always be discreet, and with a clear objective of improving your understanding of the person with dementia to optimise their care and support.

Equally, observation isn’t the tool of the individual who doesn’t want to help a person with dementia who is in distress or struggling to accomplish something and becoming rapidly more frustrated and unhappy. It should never, ever, be used as a weapon of torture, where you are deliberately leaving the person to ‘get on with it’ regardless of whether they are able to do that or not. 

Making that judgement call is largely about the personality of a person in a care or support role. Those who observe most effectively are kind, compassionate individuals who instinctively know when to observe, how to reflect on that observation, and crucially when to intervene.  To some extent that judgement is also influenced by the culture of any organisation that person is working for. If the culture of the organisation encourages its workforce to observe, learn, reflect and adapt, and recruits workers with the values I outlined above, then observation becomes a regular, seamless part of the care and support being provided. 

What applies across the board, however, is that without observation a person with dementia will never be truly understood by those around them, their care will not be person-centred, and they will not have the freedom to express themselves or exercise their independence. That, I’m sure we could all agree, isn’t a life anyone would choose, so next time you’re with a person who has dementia think about how effective your observation skills really are.

Until next time…

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4 thoughts on “Harnessing the power of observation

  1. Thank you Tanya – Really great to read about your experiences, thank you for sharing

  2. Fantastic blog! Thank you – I am a Dementia Care Mapping trainer for University of Bradford – cannot express enough, as you say, how observation can transform lives -not just for the person living with dementia being observed, but for others around them and ultimately changing the culture of care. I always emphasise that if care and support providers really want to understand the experience for people in their care – sit and watch- the simple act of spending time in the shared space can transform care. So sad recently that a manager I was working to support wouldn't accept that her Home needed change – I asked her to sit with me whilst I mapped – she had to leave the space after 30 minutes…that setting is changing as a result.. people's lives are being transformed – many should argue that we shouldn't need to do this in 2015..but we do…. thank you again for sharing

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