Soc Sci Med. 2021 Jun 19;282:114156. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2021.114156. Online ahead of print.
People living with dementia (PLWD) are almost always admitted to the acute hospital for reasons unrelated to their dementia, finding themselves in the unfamiliar environment of a Health Care of Older Persons acute ward. The effect of this environment creates a challenge not just for a PLWD themselves, but also for the staff who care for them. Concerns have been raised by both policy makers and staff about the quality of communication between hospital staff and PLWD. Using conversation analysis, we examined 41 video recordings of healthcare professional (HCP)/PLWD interactions collected across three acute inpatient wards in a large teaching hospital in the UK. In this paper, we focus our analysis on hard-to-interpret talk (talk where there are problems in hearing, speaking and/or understanding), and the ways in which healthcare professionals respond to this. Repair of hard- to- interpret talk is common in ordinary interaction, but we find that HCPs in this setting use a range of approaches to avoid direct repair. These approaches are: the use of non-committal responses and continuers such as 'yeah' or nods; the use of repetitions or partial repetitions; responding to the emotional tone displayed in the PLWD's utterance; closing the current topic and shifting to the next; and treating the PLWD's talk as related to the task at hand. We suggest that the use of these approaches may be one way in which HCPs manage respecting the personhood of the PLWD, by preserving face and enabling a continuation of an interaction in which the PLWD can take an active part. Our paper provides an empirical demonstration of the high level of interactional skill involved in dementia care work. It also illustrates how these skills can be described and specified, and hence incorporated into the recommendations and tips that are produced for communication with PLWD.