How to Use Non-Verbal Communication with Seniors with Alzheimer’s

If you’re a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s[1. “Support for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregivers,” July 2015,], you know how challenging this condition can be. Problems with memory loss, personality changes, and a host of behavioral symptoms can make every day a battle. Often, these issues are compounded by the fact that former communication methods may no longer work with the patient, especially in the later stages of the disease. This is why it’s crucial to learn about non-verbal communication when looking after seniors with Alzheimer’s.

Why Non-verbal Communication Is Important for Seniors with Alzheimer’s

Non-verbal communication is important to use with Alzheimer’s patients, and not only because spoken and written language becomes harder for them.[1. “Common Language Problems of Severe-Stage Alzheimer’s,”] It’s also because dementia-related illnesses make it harder for the patient to understand others as well. Without the ability to express themselves and call attention to their needs, frustration and its related behavioral problems can quickly set it.
Signs that indicate your loved one is having trouble communicating include the following:

  • Inability to find the right words
  • Repeating the same word over and over
  • Using an incorrect (but similar) word to describe something
  • Losing their train of thought
  • Swearing or cursing more often
  • Speaking less
  • Using gestures instead of speaking to convey meaning

Tips for Wordless Communication

Here a few silent ways you can make yourself understood to your loved one:

  • Make eye contact. This shows the person you are engaged and paying attention.
  • Re-introduce yourself with a handshake. If the Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point where your loved one no longer recognizes you, you may have to “introduce” yourself every time you meet.
  • Give them space. We don’t often think of “space” as a way of communicating. However, giving a person too little space can be an aggressive act, even if it’s unintentional.
  • Level with them. If your loved one is constantly seated, or in a wheelchair, you may appear intimidating if you stand over them. Try to sit next to them, or crouch down when you have something important to say.
  • Don’t be cross. Avoid crossing your arms if you can. It often indicates anger and defensiveness (and can be interpreted this way, even if you’re not feeling those emotions).
  • No sudden movements. No, your loved one isn’t an animal in the wild. But in a way, the same rules apply. Sudden or rushed gestures can be seen as frightening or threatening to many individuals.
  • Make a gesture. Visual cues are often much more effective in communicating with Alzheimer’s patients than words. Pointing or handing a person an object allows them to easily see what you mean.
  • Use good touches. Although suddenly touching an Alzheimer’s patient can startle them, a gradual approach can convey warmth and support. For instance, placing your hand on their upper arm, or gently taking their hand, can make them feel more relaxed and at ease.
  • Smile. This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but it’s not easy to remember in between all your caretaking responsibilities! Still, a genuine smile is one of the simplest ways to express love and a sense of well-being.
  • Laugh. Similar to a smile, laughing increases “feel good” endorphins, and lets your loved one experience a brief burst of joy. Watching funny videos (that rely on slapstick or non-verbal humor) are a great way to loosen you both up and have a happy afternoon – no talking required!

Start Practicing Nonverbal Communication for Seniors with Alzheimer’s

Even if your loved one still communicates verbally, it’s never too early to start practicing the techniques above. It will help them become more familiar and comfortable with non-verbal cues over time. That way, if there ever comes a day when words fail them, other communication methods won’t seem so alarming. Try a few today, and let your loved one know you care – without saying a word.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.

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