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Is a cup of tea always the answer?

Kate Thubron in Partnership with Oomph Wellness

It is said that a cup of tea can solve everything, whether you’re a fan of an Earl grey, green or classic breakfast tea.

A cup of tea can indeed make you feel better, but is this always the answer for someone living with dementia who may be experiencing some form of distress?

Imagine you wake up not recognising the place you are in. You look for your partner or some form of clue to where you are and why you are there. However, your surroundings are unfamiliar and there is no-one around that you know. People are around and they look like they should be able to help. They are wearing uniforms and smiling. You try to ask for help, but you cannot express the words as you would like. They come out jumbled. They continue to smile, but your frustration grows because you need to know where you are, and no-one seems to be listening to you. You just want to go home! However, you are led to the dining room with other people you do not recognise and given a cup of tea.

As care partners it is vital that we reflect on how we would like to be treated in that situation. Stop and ask yourself:

  • How would you feel in this situation?
  • How would you feel and react if you did not feel listened to?
  • Would shouting or crying be a valid human reaction in this situation?
  • Would the cup of tea help you?
  • What actions would help you?


The chances are, that the cup of tea would not help you recognize the people or place, nor would it help you feel safe and familiar in your surroundings. Therefore, this reaction of shouting or crying results from an unmet need.

The word ‘unmet’ is essentially saying a need has not been addressed. As care partners, we can start to address a person’s unmet need simply by acknowledging the persons feelings. All human beings have needs and when they are unmet, this can cause upset or distress, but we develop the ability to express these needs to help us address them.

Knowing that this is likely a reaction to something that is not right, we can start to ensure that we acknowledge the persons feelings and help appropriately. These needs could include warmth, comfort, food, love or company. People with brain changes or damage still have these needs. However, it may be more difficult to express these needs easily in a way we understand. As care partners, it is therefore vital that we look for alternative ways a person may be trying to communicate with us.

Teepa Snow identifies three areas of unmet wants and needs to look out for:

Unmet physical needs

Hunger and thirst

Tired and/or overstimulated

Bowel or urinary distress



Unmet emotional needs






Unmet psycho-social needs







If distressed behaviours, such as shouting or crying, are a form of communication, we need to consider the language we use for them. Labelling these behaviours as ‘aggressive’ or ‘challenging’ demonstrates we are not acknowledging or addressing the unmet need. Instead, it places an emphasis on how the care partner is feeling about the situation. This will not lead to the person’s unmet need being met and will likely increase in distress.

Teepa Snow asks us to, ‘Be a detective and not a judge’.

Acknowledge the distress, investigate the unmet need from the lists above and take action to help provide what is needed. Don’t expect a cup of tea to solve all physical, emotional or psychosocial unmet needs. It just won’t! However, once that need is met, a cup of tea may well be enjoyed in the way intended!

For more information about Wellbeing Training and Oomph On Demand please contact

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