Connection in a Crowded Room

Picture by Luci Downes

We’ve all experienced that feeling, being somewhere, surrounded by people but felt the cut of loneliness and feeling isolated. Maybe we haven’t quite been able to connect and found ourselves turning inward feeling less and less able to reach out or be heard.

It can be really hard to initiate connection. Rejection hurts. Sometimes in that crowd, we just need a friendly face to take the time to check in with us that we are OK helping bridge connection especially if we are feeling more vulnerable than usual. Sometimes we may choose to leave rather than endure the pain of isolation.

Imagine you don’t have someone reach out to you or you are unable to leave that room though. Imagine attempts at connection are fleeting and hurried. You have no time to make yourself heard or be listened to. Do you feel dismissed, unimportant?

Imagine your needs are put on hold and you are unable to leave and find a quiet space to tend to your inner self. Do you wonder if you matter?

Imagine meaningful connection feels like an impossibility. Do you feel like a stranger in a strange land?

What would you do if you were stuck in a chair in a crowded room feeling isolated, like you don’t belong, and with no way out? Imagine words fail you, really fail you.

Do you cry out, scream, shout for help, create a fuss? Or do you shut down, go into yourself, dissociate, disconnect further?

According to the Office of National Statistics, ‘People in poor health or who have conditions they describe as “limiting” were also at particular risk of feeling lonely more often.’ For people living with dementia, this is no exception.

What can we do to enable better connection for people living with dementia and reduce isolation? Here are 10 suggestions:

  1. Spend time really listening to a person. This means exercising curiousity about what needs are behind their action or lack of action. For people with advanced dementia this may mean adopting approaches such as “adaptive interaction” to help a person feel understood and connected.
  2. Brief meaningful chats or acknowledgements throughout the day can help improve connection and reduce feelings of isolation.
  3. Focus on being an equal in partnership within a relationship and work with a person to help them get their needs met. This can also improve your feelings of worth as you experience relational fulfilment yourself.
  4. Explore why a person may present as angry, frustrated, sulky or uncooperative. Underneath are reasons which are unmet needs or righteous emotions. Maybe a person feels unsafe and we need to understand from their perspective why that is and how we can spend time investing in their feelings of safety.
  5. Facilitate socialising to improve connections. Are there lots of opportunities for intergenerational connections for families, friends and the wider community? It doesn’t all have to be big parties and noise, it could be a quiet knit and natter group joining with a local care home for a space to share the joy of projects and creativity for example, or family games or crafts where imagination and humour are more important than facts and end products.
  6. But not all social interactions should be contrived. They can be supported in other ways too. Consider room and hall layouts and ways of enabling a person to navigate their way through a space, facilitating those incidental connections. One thing that I feel the pandemic has highlighted is how we can feel more isolated when we are starved of those incidental connections of community. Are chairs in cosy huddles or all pushed against the wall? Are routes welcoming and engaging with seating or grab handles or are thoroughfares clinical, cold, bare and lacking meaningful, warm context?

Also creating intimate seating areas can enable people to feel safe enough to have heartfelt connections and be themselves. Loud, open, busy or noisy areas can mean it’s hard for people to relax and feel at ease. Feeling safe and relaxed matters. Adding blankets, throws, shawls, cushions and comfy stuff can all help create a cosy atmosphere which also help absorb sound and reduce echo.

It’s those incidental connections that occur naturally that matter so much.

  1. Use risk assessments as tools to do things rather than not and factor in that enjoyable life comes with risk.
  2. Animals can also help reduce feelings of isolation and although “pat-dogs” have their place, having pets around can deepen a sense of belonging. Sometimes an animal just sitting with you, or on you, is just what you need for acceptance without the pressure to chat.
  3. And speaking of which, learn to feel comfortable in a silence. That is the space where we allow emotions to be and observe how someone is feeling. There are feelings and needs behind every behaviour and it isn’t our job to stop someone feeling angry or frustrated or fed up. Sometimes part of our supportive role is to enable a person to feel what they feel safely and know they are loved no matter what and that too induces a sense of relational safety.
  4. Finally, if you can, say, “I love you” – often. Or if this is hard try, “I love – you for being honest/your sense of humour/your passion”. This shows we value a person and goodness knows we could all do with telling each other a little more about what we love in the people we have relationships with.

Now imagine we are back in that crowded room linking with love, compassion and deep listening with our hearts, ears, eyes and hands. Imagine now you feel safe, you feel at home.