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Changing how we think, care for those living with dementia

DementiAbility strives to create environments that enable positive outcomes

When Gail Elliot retired from her career in gerontology at McMaster University more than 10 years ago, she opened a new door, one to create better days for those living with dementia. Her goal was to reshape the way people think — especially those caring for people with dementia — and enable them to care differently, too.

She did just that, and then some; retirement has been a success.

Elliot is the founder and chief executive officer of DementiAbility Enterprises Inc. Working out of her family home, she combined a wealth of research and professional experience to create a new system of tools and resources to empower care partners and create a world where people think differently about dementia. She developed resources, tools and handouts that she has passed on to professionals, families and organizations. She also holds more than 100 workshops each year, all around the world.

The Burlington resident knew firsthand how difficult it is to understand dementia behaviours: she was her mom’s (Peggy Lewington) dedicated care partner until her death in 2018.

January is Alzheimer’s Awareness month, an opportunity for Elliot to continue to spread knowledge about dementia and be the voice to help those living with dementia to be the best they can be.

In Canada alone, an estimated three-quarters of a million people have been diagnosed with dementia.

For Elliot, the challenge is about changing negative views about dementia into positive ones. When a loved one or friend has dementia, it’s important for them to have positives in their life. Rather than look at what they “can’t do,” Elliot wants them to focus on the things they “can do,” so they are encouraged and enabled; living better days rather than days facing failures.

While memory loss is the most talked about aspect of dementia, Elliot's goal is to help people focus on innovative strategies to support that decline and engage abilities that have been spared, to help make life worth living.

DementiAbility is being taught by others as well, including Niagara College’s Christine Wilkinson, co-ordinator of the college’s Recreation Therapy Program. Wilkinson has been teaching DementiAbility to second-year students for six years in her program, Therapeutic Approaches to an Aging Population.

The response has been incredible, Wilkinson said, noting the agencies that employ the high-demand graduates comment on the high level of skills and knowledge from the hands-on training on dementia they have. One student shared this email with Wilkinson:

“I had an interview...and used so many of the principles I learned in the DementiAbility workshop. Asking an older gentleman for help with something in order to encourage their involvement, utilizing their past occupation, validating his feelings, having a client teach me something in order to make them feel successful. It was wonderful. Tell those students it is one of the most valuable principles I have learned to date. Can be applied with any population and age. They should pay close attention and soak it up for everything it’s worth."

That’s exactly the goal of its CEO.

Elliot has authored several books, including the series, Carry On Reading in Dementia. These books feature large fonts, easy-to-read material and topics intended to create discussion amongst readers and allow them to share memories, such as memorable women, television history, and movies.

Another of her books, Let’s Chat...Some More! is a resource to create discussion with older adults. For example: if someone offered to teach you to fly a plane, would you want to learn? These collections of one-sentence prompts create a starting point for everyday conversations.

Elliot has created workbooks help enhance the brain. Her research has proven that cognitive capacity can be enhanced when the brain is stimulated. Simple exercises in spelling in her workbooks help to do just that. Another book allows people to fill in facts about their lives along with photos from the past and

Her memory support books help those with dementia to remember their life story, locate items, or use memory cues to prompt actions, such as getting dressed, or doing things, such as going to the washroom, in sequence.


Elliot's research as assistant director in McMaster’s gerontological studies provided her with all the paper studies she needed to create all these tools and programs.

“My goal was to connect research with policy and practice,” she said, adding that today’s technologies (including online meetings) have given her the luxury of connecting with researchers world-wide.

“I wanted to take the science from the bookshelves to the practice setting. The goal is so they can live with meaning, pleasure, purpose, high self-esteem, choice, dignity and enhanced independence.”

It’s all about enabling.

One tool that does just that is the ‘Wow Model’ as it helps people learn about the individual. Who, (past and present), Observations (what is happening with person, why these behaviours) and What (will you do) W+O = W.  Essentially a life story memory bank, it can help stimulate memories, and open up the lines of communication between the person with dementia and those providing support and care.

It’s not just theoretical, it’s practice. It teaches care partners to think differently based on needs, interests, skills and abilities.

“The goal is to live with learning and purpose. What jobs and tasks can we give this person to do in the present?" Elliot said. “When we enable abilities we figure out how to engage them in life.”

Keeping creative 

Another tool in her kits is colouring books that feature shapes and designs printed on a black background to eliminate the chance of colouring outside the lines, even if the person colouring has shaky hands.

Elliot’s research has proven that keeping creative can help to stimulate the brain and maintain overall health. Teaming up with Creative Art Co., she developed a number of memory support templates to offer care partners a variety of memory cues to help those struggling with memory loss. In addition, and with Creative Art Co., she helps new long-term care facilities create homes that will help with boredom, attention span and keep people safe in a place that’s well thought out.

For instance, exit doors are painted to look like bookshelves while robotic dolls can replicate things like caring for an infant. “We create the look, the feel and the smell of home. There are different doors for every room. The word that guides us is dignity. There’s a reason for all the designs. We create an environment that creates positive outcomes.”

Most recently, Elliot worked with Mohawk College to create the Words and Wisdom app for the iPad. It’s a simple, yet effective tool to engage people living with dementia.

The need to do more

Elliot would like to have DementiAbility trainers in every Local Health Integration Network (LHIN). She has trainers in British Columbia, Manitoba, England and has helped health care agencies as far as Taiwan.

She wants to do more. She’d like DementiAbility to be part of the curriculum of personal support workers, among others.

“Everyone needs this workshop. We teach everybody from the dietary staff, maintenance, housekeeping, it’s whole-person and it’s whole-team.

“We appreciate everything those staff members are doing,” she said, adding when she holds a workshop for front-line workers, it helps to reconnect their passion for what got them into that work to begin with. “We have an awesome team of care providers who need to feel valued.

“There is no easy button,” she added. “There is a system that requires the right education and the right tools and the staff, and if they are willing to put it into practice, that’s the formula.”

A formula where the purpose of life is a life with purpose.

“That’s what I’d like to see. They’re going to live and be the best they can be until they die.”

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Julie Slack

About the Author: Julie Slack

Julie Slack is a Halton resident who has been working as a community journalist for more than 25 years
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