Promoting communication and wellbeing for people with dementia through Sonas

Vol VII n.32

Promoting communication and wellbeing for people with dementia through Sonas

A group in Manchester uses an approach called Sonas to help people with dementia to express themselves. Danny Ratnaike reports on how activity may help communication.
Alison Williams, a speech and language therapist, says,
‘If someone is struggling with an aspect of communication, they shouldn’t be made to feel it’s their problem.’
‘Communication is always a partnership, a joint understanding of what’s being said.’
Alison co-founded a group in south Manchester nine years ago that provides a weekly opportunity for people with dementia to connect and express themselves.
Sonas group in south ManchesterHelen Day-Mayer, whose mother Jacqueline attended for three years, says,
‘The sessions made me aware that while Mum’s speech had largely gone, there were plenty of other ways to communicate with her by using her other senses much more.’

Alison leads a speech and language therapy team at Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust and set the group up with Admiral Nurse Loraine Butterworth. They chose an approach called Sonas – Irish Gaelic for ‘wellbeing’ – that uses a range of structured, multisensory activities.
Loraine says,
‘The regular format helps people to recognise and become familiar with the group, which is very helpful for people with short-term memory loss.
‘The short bursts of varied activities mean it’s OK if one thing doesn’t suit somebody, as you quickly move on.’
People with dementia may experience difficulties in finding words, understanding others or recognising objects, which can discourage valuable social interaction.
Alison says,
‘Sonas provides a tool that can be used for anyone at any stage of dementia. Our community group is for people who are quite well living at home, usually with a carer.’
Regular format

Kristy Stott, Speech and Language Therapy Assistant, has led the sessions for over five years. Each lasts two hours, extended from the more usual 45-minute Sonas session to be worthwhile for everyone travelling specially.
Activities use music, inflatable balls, things to smell and touch, proverbs to complete – anything that stimulates senses and memories. The session runs along to a CD, with a regular voice and signature tune providing a familiar structure.
Kristy says this means she can focus on individual attendees.
‘I don’t have to worry about the format, I can make sure everybody is involved and not left out.’
Pauline Snowden’s husband had Alzheimer’s and used to attend, and after he died four years ago she was taken on by the trust as a volunteer to help with the group.
She says,
‘Ray loved it – he was a referee until the age of 72 and always active. They have a soft ball they play football with, chair exercises and of course they sing.’
Loraine says,
‘One lady with very advanced dementia struggled to engage with her surroundings. After attending, she began to join in with some of the exercises and singing. She would be animated and began to make friends.’
Sonas group in south Manchester

Joy and happiness

Helen, whose mother was a headteacher and had mixed dementia, says,
‘It gave me ideas to follow up with at home in terms of sensory games and resources to use.
‘I also realised that making eye contact with Mum before I spoke to her made a huge difference to her comprehension.’
Helen stayed during the sessions at first, but soon felt able to spend the time doing things herself and sharing with other carers.
‘It was two hours where I could come up for air.’
Annabel Green, an Assistant Psychologist, took part in the group for a month before beginning work to gauge its impact.
She says,
‘You can just see the joy and happiness that people get from it – the big smiles on their faces, very warm and welcoming environment, and great rapport between the people with dementia and with staff.
‘The first time I went it really surprised me. One person came in without looking at anybody, but by the end he was shaking my hand and smiling.’
More mindful

Loraine says,
‘Finding ways to promote communication is very beneficial for maintaining relationships between the person with dementia and their family, as well as for the person’s wellbeing.’
Of course this can become difficult as dementia progresses. Pauline says,
‘I’ve done it myself. I used to say things to Ray and he’d look at me. I’d raise my voice but he wasn’t deaf, he just couldn’t understand the question.’
Kristy says,
‘If you need advice you could be referred to a speech and language therapist, or speak to the local Alzheimer’s Society.
‘Everyone should be made to feel valued, and not feel they have to withdraw from activities. It means being more mindful, more patient.’