Nonverbal Tips to Overcome Dementia Communication Challenges

dementia communication
A smile or handshake can be helpful dementia communication tools.

Communicating effectively with someone with dementia isn’t always easy. At different stages, dementia may affect a person’s ability to speak and remember words, to hear and process information, or to participate in conversations as they once did, making interactions difficult for the individual and for friends and family members. Conversations are such an important part of socialization and feeling connected with other people, and it’s important to find effective ways to connect. When it feels difficult, there are dementia communication tips that can help.

When thinking about communicating with individuals with dementia, we often focus on the actual words being said. Using clear language and short sentences can be helpful. Yes-or-no questions can help people make decisions rather than open-ended questions with too many options. In addition to the actual words we say, we communicate even more by how we say things.

Nonverbal communication is the language we speak between the words. We can convey emotions through our body language and facial expressions even without speaking. The tricky part, however, is that it’s also easy to confuse people when our words and body language don’t match. Have you ever had an argument with someone gesturing heavily and looking visibly upset, and then they yell, “It’s fine!”? Is their tone and body language telling you that things are really fine? This mixed message can be confusing for anyone, but it’s even harder for a person with dementia to understand and to interpret what is being said.

Types of Nonverbal Communication 

Nonverbal communication can be an effective dementia communication strategy for helping make a conversation more comfortable and easier to follow. Here are some ways in which we use nonverbal communication each day:

  • Facial expressions – Our faces allow us to show a variety of emotions when we’re speaking or silent. Facial expressions, such as a smile or grimace, can be a universal way for people to understand how someone feels in a given moment. Even without words, we can show if we are happy, in pain, sad, scared, shocked, or upset.
  • Body posture – The way we stand or move about says a lot about how we’re feeling at the moment. A person standing upright and making eye contact conveys a different level of confidence or attention than someone slumped over or rushing about. A person with their arms crossed and eyebrows furrowed may not appear very open to having a conversation or accepting new ideas.
  • Gestures – Our hands are tools for daily living, and they’re also great for communicating. Many people gesture emphatically while talking, and hand gestures are also helpful for pointing to things we’re describing. Waving hello is another common gesture.
  • Eye contact – Eye contact can be an important way to connect with others. Looking into someone’s eyes shows you’re paying attention and listening to the other person. Keep in mind that eye contact should still feel comfortable and not like you’re staring. Another benefit to eye contact is being able to read the other person’s reactions to the things you’re saying or doing.
  • Touch – Touch can be a powerful communication tool, if people are comfortable with it. Touch can be welcoming, such as a handshake or high five, and it can be supportive like a pat on the back or a hug. Touch, however, can also lead to uncomfortable feelings if a grip on the arm or shoulder hurts or feels controlling.
  • Space – The concept of personal space isn’t just for dancing! It’s important to respect someone’s personal space by not standing too close or too far apart. Too close might feel threatening or uncomfortable; standing too far away may make you appear disinterested in the interaction.
  • Tone of voice – How we say words can be as important as what we actually say. Saying “hello” in a happy tone sounds very different and more welcoming than someone speaking in a rushed or grumbling manner.

Nonverbal Dementia Communication Tips

Understanding how nonverbal communication works can help make your interactions with loved ones with dementia more effective and, hopefully, more pleasant. Here are some tips you can try:

  • Remain patient and calm – It is important to remain calm when communicating with a loved one with dementia. When you are relaxed, it has a calming influence on others and can feel reassuring even if the other person begins to get upset. Some ways to help create a calm environment for conversation include: having a quiet space, maintaining friendly body language, being patient, not interrupting, and focusing your attention on the other person. If you feel anger or frustration, it can help to step away for some breathing exercises or to take a few minutes for self-care before trying again.
  • Have relaxed body language – A friendly smile, open body language, and relaxed demeanor can make an interaction more pleasant and reduce tension.
  • Be consistent – To avoid confusion, make sure your body language and tone match the words you’re speaking.
  • Respect personal space – When approaching an individual, come from the front, and identify yourself if needed, so you don’t come as a surprise. This gives the person time to understand that you are coming to speak to them. Also position yourself at a reasonable distance so you are available but do not appear intimidating. Standing or sitting at eye level or below can help the person you’re talking to feel more comfortable as well.
  • Make eye contact – Show you’re interested and listening by looking the person in the eye.
  • Use reassuring touch – If the person is comfortable being touched, a handshake, holding hands, patting a shoulder, a hug, or rubbing the back can feel reassuring.
  • Listen and watch for reactions – While communicating, watch for verbal or nonverbal cues that  your loved one is communicating. If they are showing signs of frustration, anger, or fear, adjust your response and try a new approach as needed. If a loved one is having difficulty expressing themselves with words, encourage them to use gestures to point to something they may want or are having trouble with.

Communication is a powerful tool that is important to making loved ones feel included, loved, and safe. Even with strategies for more effective dementia communication, it can still feel frustrating for family caregivers when helping loved ones. If you’d like extra assistance in making a senior’s life easier at home, professional caregiving may be a solution.

Nightingale Homecare’s Connections Dementia Care Program provides training for family caregivers and in-home services from compassionate and patient caregivers who are specially-trained to manage the unique needs of those with dementia. To learn more about this program or our personalized services for dementia care in Phoenix and the surrounding areas, contact us online or by phone at (602) 504-1555.