LU Beck Fellow Natalie Sfeir seeks to break dementia communication barriers

Natalie Sfeir

Natalie Sfeir, a sophomore speech/language pathology major from Beaumont, envisions a future where people with dementia are no longer ostracized for their disease.

“My ultimate goal is to help prevent institutionalization of those with dementia. I want to play a role in providing a better life for them — a life where they can go about doing normal activities, a life where they can remain, to some degree, independent,” she said.

This passion led Sfeir to apply for and win the 2017 David J. Beck Fellowship. The fellowship covers all school expenses such as tuition, fees, books and on-campus room and board for one year and includes up to $10,000 to pursue a project.

The Beck Fellowships reward outstanding academic achievement and allow top students to further challenge themselves with unique opportunities for undergraduate research and creative study. Through a gift to the LU Foundation, 1961 Lamar University graduate and distinguished alumnus David J. Beck established the undergraduate fellowships.

For this project, Sfeir will conduct research over the summer at dementia-friendly communities throughout Ireland and in Roseville, Minnesota, all of which are renowned for excellence in the treatment of dementia. The primary goal of these communities, she says, is to prevent institutionalization of those with dementia, and allow them to live their lives with a sense of normalcy, independence and autonomy.

“I plan on investigating how these communities are developed and the challenges and changes created by these communities,” she said. “Each of these communities employs various activities in order to raise dementia awareness—ranging from school awareness programs that describe the effects of dementia to inclusive activities such as art festivals or memory cafés. It is important to me that I learn how each community sets and achieves its goals and overcomes related challenges, as this will allow me to see how a community becomes functional”

Sfeir will also visit the House of Memories in Liverpool, England, a reputable training facility for dementia patient caregivers. There, she says, she can receive training in empathy and effective communication strategies that will aid her in her future work with geriatric patients and those living with dementia.

“This training is crucial, as it will allow me to return and train others in the Southeast Texas community,” she said.

Sfeir plans to combine research with experiential learning during her summer projects in order to create a pilot Dementia Café within Lamar’s Speech and Hearing Department and to work toward her ultimate goals of opening her own speech therapy clinic and working on future research projects that involve those affected by dementia. Ideally, she sees Beaumont one day becoming a dementia-friendly city.

“The café would create a comfortable environment for those affected by dementia and their caregivers and would act as a judgment-free zone,” she said. “This community would further my research in observing what would be needed or wanted in a dementia-friendly community and what some of the potential impacts on and challenges to this community may be.”