How Providing Person-Centered Therapy To People
With Dementia In Long Term Care Facilities
Can Improve The Quality Of Their Lives

By Judith Rand, PhD
Copyrighted 2010


Did you know that not all long-term care facilities offer psychological services to the persons with dementia
who reside there? Counseling and therapy services should be available to every person with dementia
(i.e., those with diminished memory, neurological health, and cognitive ability), if he or she wants them.
Why? For two reasons: To support them in making sense of their lives, and to support them
in making sense of themselves in their present condition and experience.

Many psychologists who do practice in long-term care (LTC) facilities base their work on the medical
model of treatment. In this model, hierarchy in the relationship is essential in order to observe the client
as the subject of inquiry. The psychologist focuses on using his or her own expert knowledge to make treatment
decisions for residents. Residents are considered to have deficits and dysfunctions; the psychologist is called in
to “fix” them. This form of treatment often does not view the client as an expert about his or her own life. It views
clients as lacking information and the ability to make decisions about what is best for them. Regarding dementia,
those using this approach assume that there is little or nothing you can do for the patient. They tend to focus
largely on assisting the family and long-term care providers.

In contrast, those psychologists who utilize person-centered therapy base their work on collaboration with
residents in a joint endeavor to effect positive change from the resident’s view. The counseling relationship
is based on discovering who the person is and what she or he is thinking and feeling about what is happening
to her or him. The assumption is that a person with dementia "is making an urgent request to make sense of Self -- to
make sense of the past as it has affected the present and how the past has collided with what appears to be a wall
blocking the future" (Lipinska, 2009). According to psychologists who utilize person-centered therapy,
therapeutic relationships with residents emphasize unconditional acceptance; responding with empathy;
generosity of spirit – giving the benefit of the doubt and not making premature and often inaccurate assumptions;
belief in human development as occurring throughout life; and the spiritual dimension of experience.

What does the psychologist providing person-centered therapy do? She provides opportunities for people
with dementia to tell their stories and to be listened to in psychotherapy. She also provides them with an opportunity
to make sense out of the  world in which they live now and to grieve the losses they have suffered.

What happens in therapy? The assumption is that older adults continue to develop in the emotional, social,
and spiritual dimensions of their lives up to the point of death. Story-telling is a way for individuals to become known
to themselves and to others. They gain a sense of their own worth as their stories fill them with status and importance
in the relationship. What are the outcomes in person-centered therapy? Defeat of the 3 most common plagues in LTC --
boredom, helplessness, and hopelessness; reduced anxiety and depression; enhanced feelings of being heard,
worthwhile, valued, respected; increased desire and ability to express how they are feeling
during the session without needing to wonder if it is appropriate to do so; experiencing of
forgiving and resolution; and feelings of being taken seriously and empowered to be
themselves within their relationships at their home.

What are the implications for families when choosing a long-term care provider? Assuming the provider offers
psychological services, the first implication concerns the issue of power & influence in therapy. Here there are two
choices. Does the psychologist utilize a “power over” strategy based on the medical model to induce compliance
among residents living in the facility? Or does the psychologist utilize an “empower to” strategy to invite
collaboration with residents regarding their own care? The second implication concerns the issue of “resistance”
versus “protection” on the part of the resident. Consider the following. Does the psychologist understand that
residents hold a lifetime of beliefs, decision-making and choices to which they may be wedded strongly?
Does the psychologist encourageresidents to honor their past choices? Does he or she enable residents
to trust their own instincts about their care? Does the psychologist understand that residents may need to
protect themselves and their position (i.e., appear “resistive” to care) in the new world of long-term care until
they better understand and trust that new world? Does the psychologist understand that residents have the right
to say “no” to a particular treatment? Does he or she understand that residents may need to say “no” (i.e., appear
resistiveto care) before they can say “yes” (i.e., comply with treatment and care)?               

In conclusion, families who are considering long-term care for a loved one, and families who have already placed
a loved one in long-term care, should consider the choices now available to them. Does the facility offer
psychological services to all residents? Do the psychological services offered at the facility
emphasize person-centered therapy? Do you believe your loved one might benefit from
psychotherapy that facilitates a search for meaning in his or her current situation?
Does your loved one know that these services are available to him or her?

Reference: Lipinska, D. (2009). Person-Centred Counseling for People with Dementia: Making
Sense of Self
. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.


Dr. Judith Rand is a licensed psychologist in Arizona and provides expert, person-centered psychological services to residents at home in
long-term care facilities in Tempe and Mesa. She also provides services on an outpatient basis. For more information, please contact her
at 480.399.6100 or admin@thefamilyprosperityinstitute.com (please put “Person-Centered Therapy” in the subject line).



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