Use Nonverbal Communication to Connect with Your Loved One

Dementia Care: Non-verbal communication with seniors who have dementia

Dementia changes how we talk with our family members, but these dementia care strategies can help you find new ways to relate so you can help provide care and preserve dignity.

Dementia poses many challenges for those who care for loved ones with the disease, but one of the more difficult aspects is how it changes the way we talk with our loved ones.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, it can rob our loved one of their ability to speak. It becomes harder for them to process and understand verbal language, and more difficult still for them to articulate their needs, frustrations, and joys.

This can be tough for you too, as the family caregiver, because it means another change in your relationship and an end to the kinds of conversations you once shared. It also makes it more difficult to know how to help your family member.

“Dementia-related conditions dramatically change the way we communicate with each other,” says Sandi McCann, president of HomeCare of the Rockies, which provides in-home caregivers to older adults and families living in Boulder, Longmont, Louisville, Lafayette, Broomfield, Loveland, and all surrounding areas. “But, we can learn to adapt our communication style in a way that will help support and preserve the dignity of our loved one.”

HomeCare of the Rockies caregivers learn how to do this through the HomeCare 100 Training Curriculum, an advanced training program that provides classroom and hands-on training, as well as 40-hours of dementia-care training.

The HomeCare 100 is part of the three-tiered Caregiver Call to Serve program, led by HomeCare of the Rockies. Caregiver Call to Serve promotes professional caregiver training, fair compensation for professional care providers, and higher standards of care for older adults.

This kind of comprehensive training and support means HomeCare of the Rockies caregivers are qualified to aid clients with dementia through a variety of care approaches and techniques that help preserve dignity and comfort no matter what stage of life the older adult is in.

These techniques can also help family caregivers better understand and interpret their loved one’s behaviors and gestures and respond accordingly. That improved communication leads to better care and greater life satisfaction for both the older adult and the family member caring for him.

“Good communication skills are very important to redirect and positively intervene with behaviors, says Megan Carnarius, RN, and a memory-loss educator, consultant and the author of A Deeper Perspective on Alzheimer’s and other Dementias: Practical Tools with Spiritual Insights. Carnarius helped develop the dementia-care training program that HomeCare of the Rockies caregivers participate in as part of the HomeCare 100.

And, to better communicate with a loved one living with dementia, Carnarius says, we must slow down. This isn’t always easy.

Person-Centered Care Focus

Family caregivers have so much to do in a day. There are household chores, bills to pay, meals to prepare, medical appointments to make, and dozens of other care support responsibilities.

With so much going on, it’s easy to become task-focused, constantly moving from one thing to the next, to get it all done. Yet, to maintain lines of communication with the senior you are caring for it’s important to take the time to connect, person-to-person.

Start, by pausing and taking a deep breath to become aware of the moment, and be sure to do this throughout the day. Spend time just hanging out in the same room with your loved one and instead of taking on a task, pay careful attention to his behavior and movements. Watch his expressions and gestures. Listen and validate his experience. And, then adjust your own communication style and body language, if needed, to better engage and understand his experience.

Everyone, even those who appear confused or withdrawn due to dementia, need to feel supported and understood, Carnarius says. And those feelings are conveyed through your body language, gestures, and calm connection.

Dementia Care: Nonverbal Communication

Body language is the way to a better understanding with your family member. Even while people living with dementia may lose their verbal communication skills, they are able to pick up on nonverbal cues.

Your loved one will likely notice your expressions, gestures, and moods even when they can’t understand your speech. They will also pick up on your emotions, posture, movements, and tone. If you appear angry or agitated, if you are slamming things around or moving rapidly, they will respond to those behaviors and may display their own agitation or anger. If you are sighing a lot and acting overwhelmed they may also sense that and feel like a burden. But, a smile, gentle touch, quiet tone of voice, open posture, and slow movements can reassure, encourage, motivate, and comfort your loved one.

This kind of person-centered awareness and communication will also help you identify and work with the remaining skills and abilities your family member has so they can feel involved. This fosters a sense of control and confidence and that can help offset the agitation and frustration your loved one may feel.

Here are some ways to stay connected.

Seven Ways to Communicate with Your Loved One with Dementia

  1. Introduce yourself. It can feel hard when your dad or mom or another family member no longer recognizes you, but it might happen. If it does, take a deep breath, and then reintroduce yourself and explain why you are there. Perhaps you are going to help around the house, or prepare a meal, or simply spend time with your loved one. Offer a simple explanation with a smile. You might have to do this several times a day and while it can feel unsettling, know that it isn’t uncommon behavior for people living with Alzheimer’s. Try to remain calm and patient. Never chide your loved one for not remembering, simply offer a gentle reminder.
  2. Convey calm facial expressions and nurturing gestures. If you are feeling stressed, frustrated, or anxious your loved one will pick up on that through your facial expressions. Take a moment before entering a room to ground yourself, and become mindful of your expressions. A smile or confident look can go a long way toward soothing an agitated older adult.
  3. Be mindful of your tone of voice. A loud, fast, clipped tone can be stressful for an older adult who has difficulty processing language. Work to keep your voice even, tone gentle, and speech slow. Sometimes, it might be helpful to subtly match the gestures and tone of the older adult in order to help them feel understood. But observe first, before stepping in with a loud, abrupt tone.
  4. Communicate clearly. Make sure your loved one has his glasses on and his hearing aids in, if needed, then slowly communicate one point at a time. Maintain eye contact. Clearly enunciate your words.
  5. Encourage gestures, touch, tastes, sounds and smells. Engaging all the senses can be a way to understand and communicate with family members who struggle to articulate their thoughts. If you don’t understand what is being communicated, encourage your loved one to point or show. And reinforce your comments with your own gestures.
  6. Pay attention to body language and emotion. Often the feelings conveyed are more accurate and important than the words or sounds your loved one is making. Look for clues that indicate fear, anxiety, calm, joy and respond to that feeling.
  7. Listen well. Pause for the older adult to respond. Stay quiet until he has completed his expression. Don’t argue, or point out the inaccuracies, but acknowledge, validate, and respect what he is saying and doing.

While this kind of person-centered communication requires patience and attention, it also yields a deeper connection with your loved one and goes a long way toward preserving their comfort, quality of life, and dignity even as the disease progresses.

Preserving Dignity with Dementia

Even if your loved one is no longer able to express himself and appears disconnected and remote, research suggests we always retain some sense self. And, with that comes the inherent need we all have to feel purposeful and to be treated with dignity, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

You can do this by leading with compassion. Consider how you would want to be treated and cared for and then gently assist your loved one in a similar way.

Also, take into account your loved one’s past preferences, and the interesting, active person they were before Alzheimer’s and provide care that is consistent with who that person was before the illness occurred. Your loved one had a big life experience that should always be remembered and valued.

Caring for a loved one with dementia provides a unique set of challenges, but by adapting our communication style and taking a person-centered approach, rather than a task oriented one, we can still find important ways to understand and support our loved ones.

Can we help? Our caregivers are trained in dementia care and can support you and your loved one with care support and respite care delivered during flexible daytime and overnight hours. Call now, 720-204-6083 and hear how our professional caregivers, with training in the HomeCare 100, can help you care for your loved one.

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