Quite simply, the definition of personhood is the quality or condition of being an individual person. At the core of personhood is the self- who we are are, our values and beliefs. It’s who makes us who we are. Being able to recognize the “self” of personhood is key to understanding and practicing person-centered care for persons living with dementia.
Professor Thomas Kitwood was a pioneer in the philosophy of person-centered care from the University of Bradford in England and in the 1990s, connected the beliefs and values of person-centered care specifically to dementia care. His work and research gave voice and credence to the need to realign dementia care practices to a model oriented to the “personhood” of the individual living with dementia. Although he passed away before his research was complete, his valuable work, and has been built upon throughout the world as the basis and model for providers of dementia care services, advocates and certainly the continued research on this topic.
Personhood doesn’t go away as dementia progresses. The individual within is what makes up who we are. In many ways, dementia does change one’s judgment, memory, sensory abilities, language, mood, and behaviors. But what makes them who they are doesn’t change – it’s their personhood. Unfortunately, too often our society, families and even professional caregivers treat someone living with dementia as if they have lost who they are. When we ‘discount’ that person’s selfhood (or personhood), it alters how they think of themselves in the world, their relationships, security, and purpose.
Humans are born to relate, connect and bond. These needs remain for a lifetime, yet far too often when someone has even mild dementia, others treat them as if those inner needs that keep them whole, are simply not important. Sadly, those who are often the most vulnerable to this reaction are families. The root cause of not respecting one’s personhood is often fear, denial or the need to suddenly take control. Losing one’s personhood robs them of the ability to hang on those basic human needs – to related, connect and bond.
Respecting one’s personhood in dementia care means that we must move into their world. Join them where they are, in the moment, with no expectations other than to connect with the individual within. When doing so, we are practicing person-centered care and their personhood.
Pam Brandon is President/Founder of AGE-u-cate Training Institute and a passionate advocate for older adults and their caregivers. Pam is the creator of the internationally acclaimed Dementia Live awareness and training program and worked with recognized expert, Ann Catlin in developing the Compassionate Touch program.