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The New Zealand Medical Journal

 Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 28-November-2008, Vol 121 No 1286

The use of the Pain Assessment Checklist for Seniors with Limited Ability to Communicate (PACSLAC) by caregivers in dementia care facilities
Gary Cheung, Peter Choi
Aim Pain is often under-detected and under-treated in nonverbal patients with severe dementia. PACSLAC is a behavioural assessment tool designed to improve the detection of pain in severe dementia. Previous studies on PACSLAC were primarily with qualified nurses in Canada and the Netherlands. This pilot study is aimed to evaluate the inter-rater reliability of the PACSLAC when it is administrated by caregiver staff.
Method 50 patients from four dementia care facilities were included. For each patient, a PACSLAC rating was completed independently by a medical undergraduate researcher and a caregiver following the caregiver attended the patient’s usual personal care with the researcher observing in close proximity.
Results 36 (72%) were female and 14 (28%) were male. The mean age was 82.9 years (SD=7.2) and the mean MMSE score was 7.5 (SD=7.9). A total of 12 caregivers participated in the study. The total PACSLAC scores ranged from 1 to 22 with a mean of 5.7 (SD=4.0). The average percentage of agreement was 0.89 and the Pearson correlation coefficient was 0.83 (p<0.01) for the total PASCLAC scores rated by the researcher and the caregivers.
Conclusion This pilot study demonstrated PACSLAC has good inter-rater reliability when it is used by caregivers. We believe a baseline PACSLAC could be performed for each patient at the time of admission to a dementia care facility and re-administered on regular intervals to detect pain-related behaviour and to prompt earlier pain management. Future studies with larger samples and collaboration between different centres will be useful in providing normative PACSLAC values in New Zealand.

In the past decade, pain assessment in patients with dementia has received increasing attention as one of the attempts to improve dementia care in the community.1–3 The prevalence of pain in elderly nursing home residents is 40–80%.4–9
Previous studies suggest that pain is under-detected, and under-treated in older people with dementia.10,11 Self-reporting is often regarded as the “gold standard” in pain assessment. However, nonverbal older people with dementia are unable to communicate their pain and discomfort. Their ability to interpret pain may also be reduced in the presence of cognitive deficits.
The American Geriatrics Society (AGS) recommends the use of behavioural observation in the assessment of pain in dementia.12 The six categories of potential pain indicators are: (1) facial expressions, (2) verbalization/vocalizations, (3) body movements, (4) changes in interpersonal interactions, (5) changes in activity patterns or routines, and (6) mental status changes.
Several structured behavioural pain assessment tools are available for nonverbal patients with dementia. Two recent systematic reviews evaluated the psychometric qualities and clinical utility of a total of 15 existing pain assessment tools.13,14 Both reviews concluded that existing tools are still in the early stages of development and testing. Zwakhalen et al suggested PACSALC15 and DOLOPLUS216 are the most appropriate scales currently available and further research should aim to improve these scale by testing their psychometric properties and clinical utility.
PACSLAC (Pain Assessment Checklist for Seniors with Limited Ability to Communicate) is a checklist with a total of 60 items organised under four conceptually defined categories: facial expressions (13 items), activity/body movements (20 items), social/personality/mood (12 items), and physiological indicators/eating and sleeping changes/vocal behaviours (15 items) [Appendix 1].
Each item is scored on a dichotomous scale as present or absent. The checklist addresses all six pain behaviour categories included in the AGS guidelines. The initial study on PACSLAC demonstrated good construct validity, internal consistency, and discriminant validity.15 Prospective studies have also shown PACSLAC has good internal consistency, inter-rater and intra-rater reliability, construct and congruent validity.17,18
Previous studies on PACSLAC were primarily administered by qualified nurses and took place in Canada and the Netherlands. The aim of this pilot study is to evaluate the inter-rater reliability of PACSLAC when it is administrated by caregiver staff. Caregivers working in dementia rest homes in New Zealand are involved in the day-to-day care of older people with dementia and they have an important role in monitoring changes in their behaviour.


Study design—This is an observational study. Patients were observed and rated during their usual personal care.
Participants—Participants were stable residents recruited from four specialist dementia rest homes in Hamilton and Cambridge, New Zealand. In New Zealand, residents of dementia rest homes are mobile and confused requiring specialist care in a secure and safe environment.
Due to the presence of severe cognitive impairment, informed consents were obtained from each patient’s next of kin and/or welfare guardian. This study was approved by the Northern Y Regional Ethics Committee, New Zealand. We also obtained permission from the managers of the rest homes to conduct this study in their facilities.
Procedure—Caregivers in the four rest homes were given an hour in-service teaching on the presentation of pain in nonverbal dementia patients by an experienced community psychogeriatric nurse (20 years working experience) and a medical undergraduate researcher. The teaching was based on the material “Assessing Pain in Loved Ones with Dementia: A guide for family and caregivers”.19 PACSLAC was introduced and demonstrated to the caregivers.
For each participant, a PACSLAC rating was completed independently by the researcher (rater 1) and the caregiver (rater 2). The ratings were completed after the caregiver attended to the participant’s personal care in the morning or evening while the researcher observed the participant in close proximity.
We chose to complete the PACSLAC ratings following personal care because observation for pain behaviour at rest can be misleading, with increased indicators of pain observed during activities.20–22 The researcher also asked the participants directly to determine any verbal expression of pain (YES/NO/No response).
The researcher obtained information on demographics (age, gender) and completed a standardised Mini-Mental Status Examination (MMSE) on each participant. Information on the caregivers (including years of experience in dementia care and training) were obtained.
In New Zealand, most rest homes use the education courses provided by Health Ed Trust NZ.23 The ACE Core Programme is a 12-module programme developed to provide on-site education for caregivers. The topics covered are: an introduction of residential care facilities, the ageing process, physical care of residents, infection control, lifting and physical safety, continence promotion and management, communication skills, nutrition and hydration, basic first aid and medications.
The ACE Dementia series is a 8-module series and included topics on delirium and dementia, caring for carers, person-centred care, managing the effects of dementia, understanding the behavioural and psychological effects of dementia and restraint minimisation and safe practice.
Statistical analysis—The computer statistical package SPSS was used to perform descriptive statistics on demographics and PACSLAC scores. ANOVA was performed to determine differences in MMSE and PASCLAC scores between groups. Inter-rater reliability for the PACSLAC was estimated with (1) percentage of agreement on the 60 items between the researcher and caregivers, and (2) Pearson correlation between the PACSLAC total scores rated by the caregivers and the researcher


Characteristics of the participants—52 of the 100 patients in the four dementia rest homes were recruited. Two patients were excluded because they did not require assistance from the caregivers for their personal care; 36 (72%) were female and 14 (28%) were male. The mean age was 82.9 years (SD=7.2) and the mean MMSE score was 7.5 (SD=7.9).
Characteristics of the caregivers—12 caregivers participated in the study. Two of them have since resigned, before we could obtain information on them. For the 10 remaining caregivers, their ages ranged from 21 to 61 years, with a mean of 43.6 (SD=12.3). They were mainly female (n=9).
Their number of years of experience in dementia care ranged from 3 months to 23 years, with a mean of 7.9 (SD=8.0). Six had completed all modules of the ACE Core Programme and ACE Dementia Series. Two had no training at all with the ACE Programme. One had completed two modules from each of the ACE Core Programme and ACE Dementia Series, whilst one had completed six modules of the ACE Core Programme but none of the ACE Dementia Series.
PASCLAC ratings—The total PACSLAC scores ranged from 1 to 22 with a mean of 5.7(SD=4.0) The mean scores for the four subscales are shown in Table 1. There is no statistically difference between the mean total PACSLAC scores for female (5.6, SD=4.5) and male (5.7, S.D.=2.7) (p=0.953). The 50 patients were classified into two groups according to their MMSE scores (Group 1: MMSE < 10, n=30; Group 2: MMSE ≥10, n=20) and a sub-analysis was performed to determine the mean PACSLAC scores for the two groups. The cut-off point of 10 was chosen because a MMSE score of less than 10 is generally suggestive of severe dementia. The mean PACSLAC score was 6.9 (SD=4.4) and 3.8 (SD=2.5) for Group 1 and Group 2 respectively (p=0.006). These results suggest patients with more severe dementia have higher PACSLAC scores.

Table 1. The mean (and SD) for the total PACSLAC scores and the four subscales

Facial expressions
Activity/body movements
SD=standard deviation.

Table 2 shows the mean PACSALC scores for patients who (1) responded “YES”, (2) responded “NO”, and (3) no reply when they were asked directly on their experience of pain. There were no significant differences between the PACSLAC scores for the three groups.

Table 2. Mean PACSLAC scores for patients who (1) responded “YES”, (2) responded “NO”, and (3) no reply on direct questioning on pain

Verbal expression of pain
P value
No reply

Inter-rater reliabilities—The average percentage of agreement for the 60 items was 0.89. Table 3 shows the Pearson correlations between the total PASCLAC scores and the subscales scores rated by the researcher and the caregivers. The correlations were strongly significant which support the inter-rater reliability of PACSLAC.

Table 3. Pearson correlations between the total PASCLAC scores and the subscales scores rated by the researcher and the caregivers

Facial expression
Abnormal body movements
Facial expression

Abnormal body movements







**Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).


One of the advantages of using a standardised pain assessment tool is that it can increase nurses and caregivers’ awareness and encourage them to take the process of pain management more proactively.
Previous studies have found nurses, family/caregivers, and certified nursing assistants can recognize the presence, but not intensity, of pain in cognitively impaired patients.24–27 This study has demonstrated PACSLAC has good inter-rater reliability when it is used by caregivers working in specialist dementia rest homes.
At the present time, PACSLAC is not recommended by its authors to be used for routine clinical purposes.17 However, when adequate psychometric properties are demonstrated in further prospective studies, we believe a baseline PACSLAC could be administered for each patient at the time of admission to dementia care rest homes and re-administered on regular intervals (e.g. every 3 to 6 months) to detect any pain related behaviour.
Early detection of painful medical conditions could result in earlier investigation and treatment to improve the quality of life of patients with dementia. Resources in dementia rest homes are usually limited and a tool which can be reliably and easily administered by nurses and/or caregivers is certainly welcomed. Caregivers could also be empowered as part of the treatment team by being able to provide information on pain behaviour in patients with dementia.
Self-reporting of pain (a simple yes/no or vocalization) from a patient with limited verbal and cognitive skills has been suggested as the first step in pain assessment.3,28 However, a large proportion of older people living in institutions are unable to understand and answer even simple yes/no questions, and therefore cannot self-report pain.6,29
In this study, there was little difference found in PACSLAC scores for the group of patients who answered “YES” and the group who answered “NO” to pain. It appears that direct question on pain is neither useful nor reliable. It can also be misleading for clinicians or caregivers who have had little training or experience in the presentation of pain in dementia.
This study found that PACSLAC scores were positively correlated to the level of cognitive impairment, a similar finding by its authors.15 This does not necessary imply a patient with a more severe dementia will exhibit more severe pain-related behaviour. Dementia itself is associated with a number of behavioural and psychological symptoms and many of them (such as wandering, aggression, anxiety, and agitation) are present in the PACSLAC checklist. Nevertheless, in the development of PACSALC, it was believed the checklist could differentiate between painful and non-painful conditions in patients with dementia.
The PACSLAC checklist is long and covers a broad range of possible pain cues.14 Although a longer and a more comprehensive checklist may be more sensitive, it could mistakenly identify patients for whom pain is not present.1
Nurses also found the PACSALC 60-items checklist had too many items and several items seemed superfluous and other items overlapped. In light of these, a shorter Dutch version of PACSLAC (PACSLAC-D) with 24 items was developed.30 Ongoing research with PACSLAC-D is taking place in the Netherlands.
The mean total PACSLAC score in this study was 5.7 which is much lower than the mean score of 11.0 found in another study conducted in Canada.17 Possible explanations of this difference include differences in the samples (e.g. culture, degree of cognitive impairment, medical comorbidites, use of analgesics) in care facilities in Canada and New Zealand.
The authors of PACSLAC highlighted the importance of collecting local norms for this tool in order to facilitate clinicians’ ability to draw conclusions about the pain status of individual patient.
A recent Dutch study18 explored the psychometric quality and clinical usefulness of three pain assessment tools (PACSLAC, DOLOPLUS216 and PANIAD31,32, Pain Assessment in Advanced Dementia Scale) for elderly people with dementia.
DOLOPLUS2 consists of 10 items covering the somatic, psychomotor, and psychosocial impacts of pain. Each of the 10 items can be described at one of four different levels—rated from 0 to 3—representing increasing intensity of pain. A score of at least 5 out of 30 is considered to indicate pain.
PAINIAD consists of 5 items with three response options scored from 0 to 2 (with a range for the total scale of 0 to 10). Increasing levels reflect increasing degrees of pain. Examples of response modalities included in the “facial expression” item are 0=smiling, 1=sad, frightened, frowning; 3=facial grimacing.
In this Dutch study, PASCLAC was valued as the most useful scale by care providers; while PAINAD had lower scores for clinical usefulness and DOLOPLUS2 was considered more difficult to use.
There are several limitations in this pilot study:
Firstly, it has been acknowledged that the experience of pain can be different in different types of dementia.33 The types of dementia were not specified in this study. Mixed types of dementia are common. It was beyond the scope of this study to have all the patients reviewed by a specialist psychogeriatrician or geriatrician and/or to have neuroimaging to determine the types of dementia.
Secondly, ratings by the medical undergraduate researcher who has little experience in dementia care was used to compare with those by the caregivers. The authors of PACSLAC recommend qualified nurses for its administration. However, feedback from the medical undergraduate researcher and the caregivers suggest PACSLAC is relatively simple to learn and it takes about 5 minutes to complete.
Thirdly, the sample in this study was recruited in one part of New Zealand and may not be representative of other specialist dementia rest homes in the country. Future observational studies can be designed to address some of these limitations. For example, including patients who meet the DSM-IV criteria for dementia; collaboration between different centres in New Zealand and other countries; intra-rated and inter-rater reliability can be improved with standardised training and calibration exercises by qualified trainers (particularly if different centres are involved); and the shorter 24 items version of PASCLAC will be the preferred assessment tool.
Competing interests: None known.
Author information: Gary Cheung, Specialist Psychogeriatrician, Mental Health Services for Older People, Auckland District Health Board, Auckland; Peter Choi, 4th-Year Medical Student, University of Auckland, Auckland
Acknowledgments: This study was funded by a summer studentship grant by Waikato District Health Board and Waikato Clinical School, University of Auckland. In addition, the authors thank all the caregivers who participated in this study; Jim Arthur (Community Mental Health Nurse, Health Waikato, Hamilton) who provided the in-service education for the caregiver; and Professor Tom Hadjistavropoulos (University of Regina, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada) who gave permission to use PACSLAC for this study.
Correspondence: Dr Gary Cheung, Mental Health Services for Older People, Auckland District Health Board. Postal address: Ground Floor, Building 14, Greenlane Clinical Centre, Private Bag 92189, Auckland, New Zealand. Fax: +64 (0)9 6236475; email:
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Appendix 1. Pain Assessment Checklist for Seniors with Limited Ability to Communicate (PASCLAC)

Facial Expressions Present
Sad Look
Tighter face
Dirty look
Changes in eyes
Pain expression
Grim face
Clenching teeth
Opening mouth
Creasing forehead
Screwing up nose
Social/Personality/Mood Present
Physical aggression
Verbal aggression
Not wanting to be touched
Not allowing people near
Throwing things
Increased confusion
Activity/Body Movement Present
Pulling away
Trying to leave
Refusing to move
Decreased activity
Refusing medications
Moving slow
Impulsive behaviour
Uncooperative/resistant to care
Guarding sore area
Touching/holding sore area
Clenched fist
Going into foetal position
Others Present
Pale face
Flushed, red face
Teary eyed
Changes in sleep
Changes in appetite
Calling out
A specific sound or vocalization for pain
Moaning and groaning

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