Living Together Help and Tips

How to improve communication in a group home environment – Part 1

Article by Sarah Cotter

Sarah Cotter is a speech pathologist and case worker. She has contributed a three-part series on communication in group homes to the Nest Blog.

Humans are social beings. By and large, we love social interaction with other people. When someone has a significant communication impairment, it can be trickier to achieve this. But tricky does not mean impossible, it just requires a little bit of thought and preparation.

I have been to some great group homes, and some that weren’t so great at facilitating communication and an enriching life for their residents. The difference wasn’t fresh paint and shiny equipment. The difference was the way the residents were facilitated to communicate, engage and be their best selves at home. I have seen a young man approximately 21 years of age, dependent on others for all his daily living tasks, parked in front of a blank Colourbond® fence for extended periods. I have seen similarly dependent residents engaged in gardening, Facebook/Instagram and games like Uno.

The question is, if it were you or your family, which would you want?

I am going to assume that you, like me, think that the engaging environment and communication sound tops. In this three-part series, I’ll help to identify how you can improve communication and engagement between residents in your group homes.

People with significant communication impairments often have other physical impairments. This means they are less able to get their alternative communication tools themselves, or to reposition themselves to gain your attention. It is up to their communication partners (i.e. the staff in the home, other more able residents, family members) to set up the environment, and maximise the chance for communication. The following basic tips are a good starting point.

Get the basics right

1. Make sure the residents have access to their alternative communication systems.

• They can’t use them if the battery is flat or the system is in the cupboard.

• Make sure the resident has a way to gain your attention when you are not in the room; a buzzer or a bell.

2. If it is difficult for the resident to access the system as it has been set up, get a review by an occupational therapist with specialist skills in mounting, so the system can be used in the environments where it is needed.

3. Give your full attention to the person, so they know you want to communicate with them.

• Use eye contact

• Have an open and relaxed body posture

• Use encouraging non-words/continuers – such as uh huh, oh yeah, really?

4. Reduce environmental distractions. If you are going to have a conversation with someone whose communication is difficult to interpret:

• Turn off the TV or radio

• Move together to a quieter, well-lit space

5. For residents in wheelchairs, set them up facing INTO the communal spaces, so you can see their faces to see when they are trying to communicate with you or other residents.

6. If you need to help a person with a task, action or activity, always tell them what you are doing.

• If they have a choice, always offer it. “What do you want to wear today? Blue socks or red socks?”

• If it isn’t a choice (such as showering or toileting), inform them. “George. I’m just going to put your sock on.” It is very unsettling for things to happen to your body when you are not ready.

7. Create times for communication and engagement between residents.

• Have a BBQ on Saturdays,

• Organise a games night

• Arrange a movie night.

Chat about what everyone thought of the event afterwards.

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