A Loss of Identity

Chris Harding talks about how you can manage the inevitable loss of identity, coupled with confusion and shock to the system, when a person enters a care home

When someone goes into a care home, it is a massive shock to their feeling of self. Suddenly they are in strange surroundings, which have nothing reminding them of home or their previous life. It is an incredibly strange environment – and actually is something that would be upsetting for anyone, though obviously much more so for those living with dementia, who might not have a clear understanding of why this change has happened.

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In a strange environment, a world where they often know no-one, everything combines to create a real and profound shock to the system. Add to this, their problems with short term memory and their decreasing ability to make sense of the present, and it can be a very traumatic, disorienting experience. I often think of it being not unlike experiencing an earthquake, where suddenly – often with no warning - your bearings are lost, what you trust and know to be ‘normal’ isn’t there anymore. You’re awash, at sea.

It can be a serious struggle for many people, but there are things that you can do to alleviate this sense of unfamiliarity and to help people settle in.  One of the things we do at The Daily Sparkle, is to send out our local history Sparkles – which residents from the home often help in compiling – which feature little anecdotes, remembered stories and topics from the past, all about the local area. This is a great help in reminding someone about the community they find themselves in, and an example of how the care home is still connected to that community.

Reminiscence plays an important role in helping with this shift from the home to a care-setting too.  Recalling past events or past memories, big or small, especially local ones, are all ways to reinforce a feeling of familiarity and safety. They can often be reminders of that person’s identity, a connection to a time when that person was stronger, more important, more powerful – rather than this more reduced, dependant person that they feel in this current time of their lives. Perhaps they worked locally, or ran a local business? What do other people remember about this? How might they have interacted with this person in the past?

Being reminded of these things is incredibly important from a self-esteem point of view. It is fundamental for people to maintain some sense of their own identity – to be able to talk about who they were, the kind of person they were.  Using reminiscence and family members to access their life stories is another vital way to build a profile of who the person was before, simple things such as likes and dislikes and more complex things such as personality traits, previous jobs, positions in the workplace, hobbies and meaningful relationships. All of these things can be used to construct a  better understanding of someone, and, in time, develop activities that are specifically tailored to their needs.

To find out more about our local history Sparkles and our training, which helps with developing life story skills and using reminiscence, click here