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Reaching for someone who can't reach back

The Blair Academy teachers bring a signature high-energy, engaging approach to our dance sessions. Teaching fun dances, joking around with residents and having a positive energy are all aspects of this approach. Sometimes however, I am met with a blank stare and no response. Although feeling a little dejected, I switch on my speaker, play the music and continue the class.

This is a common encounter in care homes, where visual impairments and cognitive delays could stagnate a person’s ability to respond and engage. This further complicates an already prominent concern around a lack of social interaction in care home residents, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

So, what can we do when we are reaching out to a person for engagement, but they cannot reach back? Here, we share some tips on how that can be achieved.

Time and Effort: Going the Extra Mile

People with complex needs may require people to go the extra mile to make contact with them in order to fully engage and connect with them. This may mean you have to keep attempting to reach out to that person unconditionally, even if they don’t always have the capacity to reciprocate. Continue to ask them how their day was, continue to say their name, continue to acknowledge their presence, continue to make eye contact. If they have auditory impairments, continue to speak louder. If they don’t use conventional language, continue to use clearer and expressive body language. You may need to exert a good amount of effort over a longer amount of time to meet that person.

Knowing Each Person

You should seek an in-depth understanding of the person, knowing their impairments, disabilities, needs, preferences, and importantly their past history. So often, care home residents can fade into the background and their life histories and personalities become less acknowledged. Every person has their own rich history and experiences and it is important to recognise them as a unique individual. Also, by understanding the person, you can more easily interpret and understand their way of communicating, whether they use language or not.

Engaging the Senses with Props

Props, such as scarves, balls or cloth, can be great tools to engage the person’s senses. By holding, swaying, feeling or playing with props together, you can generate creative, playful and easier ways of connecting. For example, if both you and the person hold opposite sides of the same cloth and wave it together, a connection is established without the need for any language or physical touch. Props can engage various senses from their colour, sound and texture, so the person can feel different aspects of their environment, and perhaps be more open to connecting as a result.

Of course, we don’t always have the time or resources to execute these steps perfectly and consistently. The care industry is under a large amount of strain and therefore it can sometimes be hard to meet the needs of people to the extent which we would like to. Nevertheless, I hope this article provides a starting point for conversation around engaging with people with complex needs.

Hoi, dance teacher and administrator at The Blair Academy


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