Making Sense: Increase Communication (Nonverbally) with Seniors with Dementia

If someone you love has Alzheimer’s, then you know that looking after seniors with dementia can be demanding. In fact, it often comes with additional challenges on top of the ones associated with caring for older populations. There are the physical tasks involved in helping someone no longer able to do basic self-care, as well as the emotional cost of coping with behaviors brought on by dementia.
Numerous solutions to these challenges have been proposed over the years, and many work very well. Keeping the older adult in a familiar environment, such as their own home, and using medications to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s[1. “Alzheimer’s: Drugs help manage symptoms,” July 11, 2014,] all have their place. But if your loved one no longer has the language skills they used to, you may also want to try an unconventional approach to make communicating, and providing care, easier.

The Importance of Non-Linguistic Communication

We tend to think of communication only in terms of words. But seniors with dementia may require creative solutions to ensure your message gets through. This is because the part of their brain that handles language may have been damaged or compromised. So instead of simply speaking, try the following:
Touch. Touch is an essential component of mental and physical health, regardless of a person’s age. Simple, loving touches have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and feelings of depression. When serving a person with dementia, a simple gesture (such as putting your hand on a person’s shoulder) can be more comforting than words when they are upset. If they appear comfortable with it, you can also try holding their hand, giving them a hug, or rubbing their back.
Sight. People with dementia often have a much easier time understanding things that are shown to them rather than told. This is where communicating visually comes in, if they have adequate vision. Demonstrate how to get your sleeve into your coat, or pick up food with a spoon. Then have the older adult try to copy your movements.
Sound. Sound is another important sense when it comes to communicating messages, but not just in terms of forming words. The sounds around us affect how we feel at any given time. For instance, try not to have noises associated with wakefulness (such as the TV) going on when it’s your loved one’s bedtime. On the other hand, music with a fast tempo can encourage brisk activity, like walking. And white noise from a sound machine can help block out anxious thoughts that interfere with sleep or relaxation.
Taste. The taste of familiar foods and beverages can have a positive impact on a person’s mood, so this is another technique you may want to try with an older adult with dementia. Vanilla is believed to improve people’s overall sense of well-being (which is why it’s one of the most popular flavors of ice cream). Offering something they find comforting may calm agitation, help with depression, and communicate a feeling of peacefulness and calm.
Scent. We don’t often think of scent as a way of communicating, but the truth is, our sense of smell is tightly linked to memories, and to the emotions they stir up. If your loved one is agitated,[2. “Anxiety and agitation,”] a familiar and calming scent (such as their favorite lotion or perfume), may help calm them. When they’re fatigued, the smell of coffee (even if they don’t drink it), or energizing oils like peppermint can help rejuvenate them.

Just One Way to Show Seniors with Dementia that You Care

In addition to seeing a familiar face (like their home care aide) every day, seniors with dementia benefit from the techniques above if applied consistently. And since many dementia-related conditions are progressive, you may find yourself using them more and more. Rather than seeing this as unfortunate, be appreciative that you still have a way to show your loved one 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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