We often think of communication in the context of words or other sounds (singing or shouts for example) and we assume that the goal of communication is to share a particular message. But in fact, there are two types of communication: verbal and nonverbal. Nonverbal communication — the use of body language – is conveyed with our eyes, touch, facial expressions, gestures, hand movements, body posture and position. What’s more, the actual message, or content of our communication plays a lesser role in overall communication.
According to research, nonverbal (body language) comprises 55% of overall communication, compared to vocal tone, which comprises 38% of communication and content, which comprises only 7% of communication. Keep this in mind when interacting with your loved one. Just because they may have trouble understanding the content of your message, does not mean that they can’t pick up on frustration, fear, happiness, sadness, anger and other communication through body language.
Tip 1: Effective Non-Verbal Communication
Maintain a calm pleasant approach. The person with dementia will mirror your mood. If you act rushed or tense the dementia person may react by becoming more anxious or agitated. Approach the person from the front to minimize the startle effect. Always establish eye contact. Speak at eye level whenever this can be done. Point or demonstrate what you are trying to get across.
Tip 2: Effective Verbal Communication
Use a calm gentle voice. Use short simple sentences. Speak slowly. Call the person by name and introduce yourself if necessary. Answer a frequently asked question like it was the first time they have asked it. Eliminate distracting noises. Give one instruction at a time. Do not overwhelm them. Remember you are speaking to an adult. Allow enough time for the person to respond and repeat yourself if necessary. Use words that are familiar to them.
Tip 3: Things Not to Say
Do not try to argue with someone who has dementia, talk louder when they do not understand you, use a demanding tone or ask questions that rely on the use of memory if they are experiencing a disoriented moment. You should treat them the way you would want to be treated under the same circumstances. Basically, try to put yourself in their shoes.
Tip 4: Alleviating Barriers
Be a good listener. Encourage nonverbal types of communication and be patient and supportive. Show interest in what they are saying and do not criticize. Focus on feelings and not the facts and offer comfort and reassurance. Limit distractions, offer a guess when they can’t find the word and give them time to express their thoughts. Use cue cards to help with communication barriers. Do not make fun of their lack of abilities or tease them at any time.
Tip 5: Coping with Reality
Communication with someone with Alzheimer’s can be a difficult task. Alzheimer’s disease damages parts of the brain that control communication and it may be difficult for your loved one to find the right words. They may have difficulty following conversations or they may be able to still read but not comprehend what they are reading. Memory loss may cause the person to repeat himself or herself or to develop “automatic speech”, where a simple phrase like “thank you” is repeated. Curse words may be used more frequently due to the disease process. Keep in mind when communicating to enter their reality instead of bringing them into yours.
As you learn to communicate with some who has dementia, stay flexible. Remember that it is a trial and error process and what works today may not work tomorrow. Use your own skills and implement your own ideas
Deanna Lueckenotte experienced Alzheimer’s at a personal level with her grandmother who is now no longer with us. She has spent almost 13 years working in geriatric healthcare with an emphasis on Alzheimer’s. She is the author of Alzheimer’s Days Gone By: For Those Caring For Their Loved Ones.