How does multilingual interaction help people with dementia maintain a sense of self?

Last month we published Multilingual Interaction and Dementia edited by Charlotta Plejert, Camilla Lindholm and Robert W. Schrauf. In this post the editors reveal what inspired them to put the book together and discuss the under-researched subject of multilingualism and dementia. 

In the year 2011, we started a research programme at Linköping University in Sweden, called Dementia: Agency, Personhood and Everyday Life, the aim of which was to highlight, from interdisciplinary perspectives, a range of aspects of what it is like to receive a dementia diagnosis, and to live with the disease on a day-to-day basis. Within the programme, we ran a sub-project with linguists and anthropologists working on ethnocultural and linguistic diversity in relation to dementia; a project that rapidly grew from having played a rather minor role in the original planning, to becoming one of the more significant projects overall, during the six years that the programme lasted. In some respects, the project was a sign of its time, with massive migration to Europe and the North due to instabilities in the Middle East, but also due to earlier streams of migration, and multilingual populations growing old, requiring the provision of health care services within societies that had previously been rather ethnoculturally and linguistically homogeneous (like the Nordic countries).

Surveying the field, we discovered that a fair amount of work on ethnicity, language and ageing had been conducted, but that work within linguistics on multilingualism and dementia, and particularly that which took an interest in social interaction in mundane settings, was very limited. This took us somewhat by surprise, considering the fact that multilingual and multicultural encounters in care and health care services in countries worldwide is a rule rather than an exception. Getting our acts together, Camilla, Bob (Robert), and I (Charlotta) therefore decided to collect contributions from the few scholars who already focused on this topic, eventually resulting in the volume Multilingual Interaction and Dementia.

In contrast to what few studies there are on multilingualism and dementia, which primarily have contributed with important insights into neurocognitive aspects of the disease, the contributions to the volume all share a focus on the role of social interaction, and discourse processes involving multilingual people with dementia and significant others, for leading everyday life with as high a quality as possible, despite their condition. Many of the chapters depict life in residential care settings, in which not only residents may be of linguistically and ethnoculturally diverse backgrounds, but also staff, who may, or may not match in language and culture with residents. What is experienced is thus a highly dynamic setting, in which spoken language use, but even more significantly, bodily resources, play an important role for the ways in which residents and care providing staff manage to build rapport, and succeed in carrying out various tasks (like showering, feeding, but also amusements such as playing bingo, and the like). It is also demonstrated that the choice and use of different languages matter – and contribute to the achievement and maintenance of people’s identities and sense of self. Insights into multilingual and multicultural interaction in residential care, serve to inform care practices and can hopefully develop them further in terms of making them more linguistically and culturally sensitive. As is already known, culturally derived conceptualizations of a disease, such as dementia, affect help-seeking behaviours, and they also affect dementia evaluations and diagnostic processes. All of this, and more, is addressed in the book Multilingual Interaction and Dementia.

Charlotta, Camilla and Bob

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like the other books in our Communication Disorders Across Languages series.

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