Speaking their language aids dementia patients

Elderly dementia patients from non-English speaking backgrounds communicate more with others and take fewer psychiatric medications when living in ethno-specific nursing homes, an Australian study at Monash University has revealed.

The study found that Italian-speaking residents in mainstream facilities had a significantly higher rate of prescription of daytime tranquillisers than those in Italian-specific facilities.

Dr Susannah Runci, from the university's Aged Mental Health Research Unit, said her study found that 30 per cent of participants in mainstream facilities were prescribed daytime benzodiazepines -- but none of the participants residing in Italian-specific facilities were prescribed them.

Dr Runci said the study also revealed a shortage of ethno-specific aged-care facilities in Melbourne.

"This means the quality of care provided for non-English speaking residents might be compromised due to cultural and communication difficulties, particularly for those with dementia," she said. "It also appears that family members are often used as interpreters, which can be a cause for concern."

As part of a three-stage study, Dr Runci compiled a profile of nursing home residents in south-eastern Melbourne who either preferred or needed to speak a language other than English -- mainly European languages, with lower numbers nominating Asian or African languages.

"We discovered more than 1100 people -- about 19 per cent of the aged care facility population in the survey -- either preferred or needed to speak one of 40 different languages," Dr Runci said. "We also found that people from such backgrounds were most commonly the sole resident 'preferring' or 'needing' to speak their non-English language or had only one other resident speaking their language at their residential care facility, which is very isolating."

Dr Runci then observed and compared the language use of Italian-background residents living in either Italian-specific or mainstream aged care facilities.

"A significant finding here was that the residents in Italian-specific facilities engaged more often in meaningful communication in the Italian language than those in mainstream facilities," Dr Runci said. "These included people who learned to speak English -- but the ability has disappeared with dementia."

The third project compared the impact of an intervention conducted in either English or Italian language for three Italian-background persons with dementia who were considered verbally disruptive by staff at their facilities.

"That can include yelling, screaming, and repetitive requests that can be disturbing for other residents and of course be a sign of discomfort or an indication they have unmet needs," Dr Runci said.

She said the research findings emphasised the importance of language-relevant services and, given the growing aging migrant population, have important government policy implications.

Contact: Professor Daniel O'Connor, head of the Aged Mental Health Research Unit and Dr Susannah Runci are available for interview on +61 3 9265 1700. http://www.monash.edu.au

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