Aug 27, 2020

“People living with dementia are people”: what we can learn about treating them that way

Often for those living with dementia, the knee jerk reaction of many around them is one where they are seen as “other”. Less than the person they were before. 

However, a recent talk conducted by Georgetown University’s Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Steven Sabat, focussed on treating a person living with dementia as a person first, and patient second. The approach will improve their quality of life and teach those interacting with them a lot about humanity. He made the comments at the Dementia Alliance International free webinar titled ‘What people living with dementia teach us about our shared humanity’.

Prof. Sabat broke down the ways in which engaging with people living with dementia benefits from a shift from an “I-It” relationship to an “I-Thou” relationship. All too often, it’s common to see people, both care staff and in some cases family and friends, begin conducting their relationship with a person living with dementia as an “I-It” relationship. 

This is categorised by treating the person or people as ‘other’. Being detached, cool, or keeping a distance. An “I-It” relationship is task oriented and focuses on what a person living with dementia can or can’t do, rather than who they are as a person. It looks at a person as a quantitative value of competencies. 

Breaking down this barrier and developing one in which an “I-Thou” relationship is prioritised is key in developing better, higher quality relationships, and more effective communication with people living with dementia. 

In an “I-Thou” relationship, you are person focused, more open and vulnerable, more spontaneous. You spend more time listening to what the person is saying, rather than just telling them what they mean/need/do. Their competency is more qualitative rather than a simple ‘yes/no’ direction. At its core, “I-Thou” relationships are about openly, honestly and enthusiastically engaging with the person. You care about who they are as a person, rather than simply as someone living with dementia. 

In a study conducted in Scotland, mental health nurses attended the homes of people living with dementia. In the initial periods of the study, they were left to do what they had to do. This meant going through the house, checking off boxes, ticking their to do lists, and then leaving. While this was effective from an impersonal professional level, the person-to-person contact was not prioritised. 

These nurses were then given training in person centred care and counselling skills. Once equipped with these skills they went back into their patients’ homes and almost naturally, their care went from one of box ticking, to one of personal care and engagement. They were able to engage with their patients as people. And while not all their boxes were being ticked every day, their job satisfaction and the satisfaction of their care recipients, went through the roof.

“Learning to listen, and becoming more engaged and engaging with the other person, it turned out that those same nurses were benefiting from being that way in their private lives. 

“They were actually becoming more person centred, or “I-Thou”, in relationships to people, even in their families, they were starting to listen more,” said Prof. Sabat. 

After all, living with dementia doesn’t change an individual’s basic human wants, needs, and desires. It does however, change the way we need to see their strengths and weaknesses. 

Someone who was once a proud communicator and who found strength in their ability to orate fluently and beautifully, may now swiftly change subjects if they are struggling to find the words they want in order to continue on the current topic. Where it may be easy to assume that this is a sign of their lack of ability to maintain a train of thought, really it is an attempt at reducing embarrassment on their part, and wanting to continue conversing. 

People living with dementia do not lose the ability to feel and show love and gratitude to people. They appreciate warmth, kindness and acceptance from others, and often have a heightened sensitivity to the emotions and vulnerabilities of others.

For those not living with dementia, who can say they haven’t tried to avoid embarrassment? Or searched for kindness and acceptance in others? Engaging with a person living with dementia, focusing on an “I-Thou” relationship dynamic opens the doors for more effective communication and understanding. 

“ ‘I-Thou’ are the kinds of relationships that allow us to start to see more and more and more of the shared humanity that people living with dementia have with those who don’t have that diagnosis,” said Prof. Sabat. 

Whatever is happening in our lives, we do not stop being human. Treating those living with dementia as people first, patients second, is the key to ongoing happiness, empathy, and shared humanity. 


Prof. Sabat’s talk “What people living with dementia teach us about our shared humanity” was facilitated by Dementia Alliance International a registered non-profit organisation whose membership is exclusively for people with a confirmed diagnosis of any type of dementia from all around the world. We seek to represent, support, and educate others living with the disease, and the wider dementia community. We are an organisation that strives to provide a unified voice of strength, advocacy and support for our rights, individual autonomy and improved quality of life. DAI is the peak body globally representing persons with dementia, and widely accepted as the global voice of dementia.

We provide free online support groups and other free services and activities for our members, in number of different time zones, including:

– Membership is exclusively for people diagnosed with dementia

– Weekly peer to peer support groups

– Living Alone Social Support groups

– One to one peer mentoring/buddying

– Online monthly cafes

– Educational monthly online Webinars

– Twice monthly Brain Health meetings

– Monthly Action Group

– Blogs, e-news updates and newsletters

– Active Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube

– Research projects, public speaking and global advocacy

DAI supports and empowers people with dementia to live more positively with dementia, not only to go home and die from it. Our focus is on grassroots support, education, awareness and international advocacy for human rights for all people diagnosed with dementia and our families.

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