Creating Meaningful Interactions with PPCs

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Deirdre Thornton

By Deirdre ThorntonOctober 24th, 2019

Creating Meaningful Interactions with PPCs


Meaningful Relationships Start with Positive Personal Connections (PPCs) in any Language

by Deirdre Thornton,
PAC Mentor

My family (2 adults, 2 kids, and a dog - minus the white picket fence) has lived in our house for eight years now. We reside in a mid-century neighborhood (as in 1950s), 10-minutes west of a bustling downtown core. The residential streets are lined with mature maples and oaks and small-ish one and-a-half story homes that all closely resemble one another, but have obviously been adapted over time to the owners’ preferences and needs.

I am from Western Canada and spent many years growing up on a farm – that’s right, a farm! - where my Dad grew crops (the standard ones – wheat, barley, canola). Mom grew beans, peas, and potatoes, and we had a small cria herd of llamas!  My husband, on the other hand, is from Toronto, the largest city in Canada which often boasts that it is the Centre of the Universe (note my Canadian-UK spelling of centre versus the American version, center.  It was deliberate!  Not a mistake!)

Our across-the-street neighbors are the Rubinis who have lived on our street since the early 1970s, not long after they immigrated to Canada from Italy. Otto, in his 80s, helps everyone with everything from lending tools to lending a hand. Grazia loves Tiffany blue and collects Swarovski crystal figurines. In the last two years we have noticed that Grazia has transitioned from a Sapphire to a Diamond to an Emerald as the progression of dementia becomes evident in her speech, orientation, memories, and movements… Grazia no longer recognizes that I have lived across the street from her for several years.

Living in a multi-ethnic city can be a beautiful, vibrant, and diverse cultural experience. But it can also be sometimes difficult to find common ground and relate to similar experiences. So, how do we form meaningful connections with people we encounter every day? What if they are a family member? What if they are a neighbor? What if they are a patient? What if they are a Person Living with Dementia (PLwD)?

Think about a time when you met someone for the first time. Was it a positive experience or a bad experience? Did you enjoy the time spent together or did you feel awkward? Did you sense a connection or did you feel worlds apart?

When we meet with a PLwD, it can often feel like a first-time encounter for them – even if we are a spouse of 50+ years, child, sibling, or daily care partner. When we understand a bit about the changes that are taking place in the brain of a PLwD, it can help us to make connections that are both meaningful and positive, both for you and them!

Three key words can help us to remember how to create meaningful and memorable interactions: Positive - Personal - Connection. We call them PPCs.


Use a positive and friendly tone and warm facial expression. As the disease progresses, a PLwD may miss words in a conversation, but because the functions on the right side of the brain tend to be preserved, they will notice tone, rhythm, and how the interaction is making them feel. Relax your eyes, smile, maintain a supportive stance at eye level, and introduce yourself: “Hi, Grazia, it’s Deirdre – your neighbor” or “I’m (your name, point to yourself), and you are…?”

Notice the difference between a positive start and one that starts with a scolding tone, “Grazia, I’ve been your neighbor for eight years, we just had dinner together last week. Don’t you remember?”  If someone started an interaction with you, which one would you respond to?


Following a warm greeting, identify something that is meaningful or of value to the PLwD. Give a compliment or say something nice. For example, “Your new hairstyle is beautiful” or “That new tie looks very dapper!” Use fewer words and more visual cues, such as gesturing to your hair first and then to theirs or with a thumbs up. If you haven’t been given permission to enter intimate space, stay in personal (conversational) space and avoid touching.


Before you start the interaction, learn or identify something that represents a mutually shared experience. What things are you now experiencing at the same time? Did you both immigrate from Italy? Nope. Did you both grow up on farms? Nope. Are you both experiencing a beautiful, sunny day in the city? Check!

Grazia and I used to talk about my children’s interests, where we each grew up, how our husbands drove us mad. But now we share the experience of cars that drive too fast down our street and how we both don’t like blue cars. I can’t say that I blame her – and our chats are just as satisfying!  Now when we visit on her front porch, we look out at the world together and connect based on our present common experience.

Communication TIPS:

- Keep your words few, plan before the interaction starts what you would like to say, as Boy Scouts are apt to say: “Always Be Prepared!”

- Notice non-verbal cues of physical and emotional unmet needs such as pain, feeling cold or warm, thirst or hunger, or needing to use a restroom.

- Limit questions and present choices instead – “It’s a bit chilly. Would you prefer a coffee or a tea?”

- Just be together in the moment – sometimes words are not necessary to look out at the world together and be happy to be alive.

Think about a PLwD that you love, provide care for, or live across the street from. What PPC will you make the next time you meet? What new connections will you discover? How will it transform and create meaning in your relationship?

Deirdre has been a PAC Mentor for almost two years. She is a PAC Certified Independent Trainer and Coach. Deirdre is an Occupational Therapist by training and registered to practice in the province of Ontario, Canada. To stay Sapphire, Deirdre enjoys coffee, trail running, and walking her dog, a Westiepoo named Tip.

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