Main image courtesy of Cahoon Care Associates.
Caring for dementia patients and those residents who are losing their cognitive abilities can be difficult for staff of long-term care facilities. This disease is challenging, and every senior responds to the effects of dementia in their own way. As the disease progresses, chances are the patient will become non verbal. If you’re working as a caregiver to seniors in this type of situation, it can be helpful to be trained in ways to communicate with them in non verbal ways.
If this sounds like something that you’re interested in learning more about, continue reading because in this article, we’re going to discuss:
- The difference between verbal and non verbal communication with dementia patients
- Why non verbal communication is helpful for dementia patients
- Examples of non verbal communication techniques for dementia patients
- Tips for caregivers working with non verbal dementia patients
Mariposa Training offers a specific class in Communication: Powerful Tools for Communicating with Residents with Dementia/Delirium.
Verbal vs. Non Verbal Communication with Dementia Patients
What are the key differences between the ways in which we communicate?
Human beings are always communicating, whether we realize it or not. We have two major ways we communicate with each other, which allows us to respond and react to our environments.
- Verbal communication. This is verbal language that we use in everyday communication, whether it’s speaking to someone directly, or writing something down like an email or a text message. For many people, this is the main way that they communicate with other people on a daily basis.
- Non verbal communication. The other type of communication humans use is known as non verbal communication. This could involve our facial expressions, how we’re standing, and even how we choose to dress. Some people might not even be aware that they’re communicating a lot of things non verbally, which can be done when they’re speaking or when they’re silent.
We go about our days constantly communicating in both verbal and non verbal ways, sometimes without even realizing it. As a caregiver to someone dealing with dementia, you might be aware that as the disease progresses, the resident starts to lose their ability to verbally communicate the way that they’re used to. They also may no longer follow or understand others’ verbal communication as well.
This is why non verbal communication is so important to dementia patients, and that their caregivers are aware of how it's a crucial tool to ensure they’re getting the best level of care.
Why is Non Verbal Communication Helpful to Dementia Patients?
Using non verbal communication with dementia patients can help them interact in the world
Since dementia affects every person differently, you might notice that some residents are able to retain their verbal communication skills longer than others. You may also be aware that some patients start to have difficulty following conversations or getting their points across before others. When you’re trying to give the best possible care to these seniors, it’s important to be aware that you have a helpful tool in your caregiving toolkit—non verbal communication.
This form of communication is very helpful to dementia patients, since it can not only help them through their daily interactions, but you can use it to help make them feel heard, more comfortable, and reduce agitation.
Non verbal communication is especially important for those seniors who have dementia, but are also limited by vision loss or hearing impairment. Not having to rely on verbal communication with these kinds of residents could involve touching, such as holding their hand or offering them a hug. This is a nice calming gesture that can be done for dementia patients who may have a hard time vocalizing their thoughts, can no longer follow conversations, or who are dealing with vision or hearing impairment.
When you don’t rely on verbal communication to interact with dementia patients, you are making it easier for them to understand what’s around them, and allows them to feel that their needs are being met.
Other forms of non verbal communication that are helpful for dementia patients could include activities such as art therapy, drawing, music, and even dancing. These are all ways in which residents can express themselves if they are having trouble verbally communicating.
Technology can also lend a hand when it comes to non verbal communication. iPads or computers are great at facilitating engagement with seniors dealing with dementia. Simple searches can offer images that they can point to, or that simply may bring them a little joy. There are plenty of ways to see how they’re feeling (think emojis), what they’d like to eat, or what they’d like to do during the day.
Non Verbal Communication Techniques for Dementia Patients
These are some of the best ways to non verbally communicate with seniors who have dementia
As a caregiver working with seniors with dementia, there is a lot you can do as far as non verbal communication. We’re going to discuss some techniques that you can employ while interacting with seniors who may have difficulty verbalizing their needs due to the progression of dementia. You can even make these suggestions to family members who may come to visit, in order for them to get more out of their interactions with their loved one.
Make sure you’re always aware of how you may look to seniors dealing with dementia. Although chances are you have a uniform to wear, you can always make it a point to try and keep your clothing and hair looking nice and in place. Try to stay away from wearing very bright clothing, or bulky clothing that may cause the patient to become fearful or agitated. By being consistent with how you look, you’re less likely to confuse or frustrate senior patients who may have trouble remembering staff members due to dementia.
Your body language is very important when you’re communicating non verbally and caring for senior residents with dementia. When you’re standing or sitting in a friendly and relaxed manner, you can help the dementia patients stay relaxed and feel welcomed. Try to avoid crossing your arms, as this can come off as a standoff kind of behavior. You want the residents with dementia to be engaged and feel safe, which you can do by paying attention to your body language.
When you’re interacting with them, try not to make quick or sudden movements, as this could startle them. How we use our body language can say a lot about how we’re feeling, and what kind of mood we’re in. It’s best to try and keep things calm and welcoming, and using body language that facilitates these feelings is a good idea with dementia patients.
Our facial expressions, like body language, can also tell a lot about how we’re feeling and what we’re trying to communicate. Using facial expressions is helpful to seniors with dementia who may not be able to verbalize themselves, or have a hard time understanding. With just a smile or a wink you can show them that you’re there to care for them, and that they are safe and okay. All of this can be done without even saying a word. Looking at your facial expressions and welcoming body language can let them know you’re ready to give them attention and to assist in any way you can.
Touch is a great way to non verbally communicate as well. The simple act of giving a senior a hug, or holding their hand may be all they need to feel calmer and more assured of their circumstances and environment. You can also let any family or loved ones who visit know that touch is a great way to let the senior with dementia know they are loved. Another great idea is to give them a hand massage, which allows them to not only spend time with their loved one, but gives them a way to communicate how they’re feeling without words.
As we mentioned earlier, activities are a great way to allow seniors to non verbally communicate. Drawing, music, and dancing are all ways to engage them and allow them another vehicle to communicate. Whether this is a daily activity, or a part of a larger calendar of activities, giving the seniors with dementia the opportunity to express themselves in a different manner can be very beneficial.
Along with body language and facial expressions, gestures are a way that we can non verbally communicate. When you’re explaining something verbally, we also tend to use our hands to wave or emphasize certain aspects of what we’re speaking about. Non verbally, gestures can help seniors with dementia feel more comfortable or welcome, or help give them cues as to where they’re supposed to be (like the activities area or the dining room). Pointing and waving can allow caregivers to communicate without having to vocalize to seniors with dementia.
It’s also important to respect the personal space of seniors with dementia. Just like everyone else, there are different levels of personal space. What is okay with one senior, might not be with another. Respecting the personal space of seniors with dementia can help them feel more relaxed and included. When you are too close to someone, they may get uncomfortable, or agitated. However, too far away from someone can be interpreted as uncaring, so you’ll have to work this out on a case by case basis.
Even if the senior with dementia cannot communicate with you verbally, they can respond to the tone of voice you’re using. While non verbal communication is key to interacting with seniors with dementia, there’s nothing wrong with speaking to them or even reading to them in a nice soothing tone of voice.
Remember, you as the caregiver should try and avoid negative statements that can lead to confusion and agitation. Staff should work on validating the reality of the resident, and when they are dealing with dementia, oftentimes that reality is in the past. Do not force the resident dealing with short term memory impairment due to dementia to live in our reality, as it leads to confusion. By validating that what they are speaking of or thinking about is real, caregivers are able to more effectively communicate with residents.
By asking questions such as who, what, or where, with the appropriate non verbal cues, you allow the resident to speak about their reality and can possibly learn what is bothering them, or what it is that they need.
Senior living facilities can also work to make the environment that residents are in to be as home-like as possible. This appears less threatening to the resident with dementia, and continues the validation of their reality.
Staff who are working with dementia residents can create a personalized plan of care that takes into account the interests and preferences of each resident. When each senior has meaningful activities to do that take into account their lifelong roles, they can feel fulfilled knowing that their needs are met.
Tips for Caregivers of Non Verbal Dementia Patients
Keep these tips in mind when caring for non verbal dementia patients
Now that you know a few non verbal ways to communicate with dementia patients (and how they can communicate with you) it’s also important to go over some tips to keep in mind while you work with these residents. If you’ve been in senior care for a while, chances are you’ve been trained on this, but it can’t hurt to keep these in mind.
Try to give your full attention to the senior you’re working with, and allow them to try and communicate what they want to say. Keep in mind that calm body language and facial expressions will help in this, and prevent the senior from becoming frustrated or agitated.
Although it may be difficult, try to be as patient as you can. The senior resident is dealing with issues they haven’t experienced before, so allow them the time and the space to communicate. There are a variety of ways this can be done non verbally, so make sure to pay attention to these cues as well.
Make sure if you are using verbal communication, that your words match your body language, tone, and facial expression. It can be confusing to seniors with dementia when your body language and words do not match, causing more confusion and even distrust.
See how your verbal and non verbal communication are affecting the senior you’re caring for. If they are able to verbally communicate, or if there are non verbal ways they can, you can use this to adjust your behavior and keep them calm and relaxed.
Non verbal communication is very helpful when caring for seniors with dementia. When you are aware of ways to non verbally communicate, it can make it easier to interact with and meet the needs of seniors with dementia. Seniors with dementia can also use this form of communication to interact with staff and family, allowing them to feel included, relaxed, and welcomed. Consider taking the Mariposa Training course on communicating with residents with dementia/delirium, or any one of their other online courses in senior care.