Breaking Down Language Barriers

Hello everyone,

If you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, you know how difficult it can be to get directions to a museum or order a meal.  Imagine how frightening and depressing it would if everyone around you spoke a different language, but instead of being on vacation, you were in your own home and needed to communicate more vital information, such as the fact that you were in pain or very confused.

Some of you have asked for tips on how staff can more effectively communicate with and engage residents who do not speak English. This can be challenging, especially with residents who have dementia. With some investment of time and extra effort, however, both staff and residents can benefit.

Here are some things to try:

If the resident has family or friends nearby, or if there is a staff member from the same culture who speaks the same language as the resident, they can be a valuable resource and can teach staff (and even other residents!) some basic phrases to use.

  • Create communication sheets or flashcards with simple phrases in the person’s language (Good morning, Please join us, Are you in pain?, etc.) and hang them in the resident’s room for staff to use.
  • Download a free translation application onto your phone to use when you or the resident have something important to communicate. There are apps that focus on medical terminology too.
  • Be mindful of body language. If a person cannot understand your words, they will rely on your body language and facial expression to help determine your intent. A smile and open stance can be a good start to help put the person at ease.
  • Take time to learn about the culture of the person, and invite family members to bring in food, music or activities from their culture to help entice the resident out of his/her room and get others—including staff and residents–involved.

Let us know if any of these suggestions help you, and have a great week!


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