As Alzheimer’s progresses, verbal communication becomes more and more difficult. Alzheimer’s has a devastating effect on the brain’s ability to recognize and process verbal language. Language impairment is considered one of the “primary components” of cognitive decline in those coping with Alzheimer’s.
For those of us who provide Alzheimer’s care, whether as family members or professional caregivers, this makes communication difficult, particularly in the mid-to-late stages of Alzheimer’s. But “difficult” is not “impossible.” In fact, there are non-verbal ways we can use to communicate clearly with Alzheimer’s sufferers, commonly known as “body language.”
But there’s a catch here: few of us are truly fluent in body language. When we’re growing up, we spend years learning how to read, speak, and write — but this is all verbal language. Most of us didn’t get class credit for learning open posture or how to maintain proper eye contact.
So consider this post a crash course in why body language is more powerful than you might think, how caregivers can become more fluent in non-verbal language, and what you can (and can’t) say by communicating this way.
Body Language Essential to Alzheimer’s Care
Human beings learn how to read body language well before we ever speak our first word. And for people who are coping with Alzheimer’s, their ability to understand body language lasts much longer than their ability to understand speech and written language.
When verbal language fails those suffering from dementia, they turn to other ways of making sense of their surroundings. Consciously or unconsciously, they start to rely on other signals to interpret the world and the people they interact with. If a conversation can’t be followed, other signals (like crossed arms, anxious tapping, or laughter) become more important than what’s being said. If someone’s shouting, it’s not what they’re shouting, but that they’re shouting that matters.
As those with Alzheimer’s come to rely on non-verbal communication more and more, even small gestures — a slight change in posture, a quiet sigh — can become meaningful and magnified. For caregivers, it’s important that we understand what our body language is saying to those in our care and how we can harness the power of body language to comfort and communicate with care recipients.
Body Language 101 for Alzheimer’s Caregivers
Becoming fluent in body language doesn’t happen overnight. Executives and politicians spend years perfecting the ways they communicate non-verbally. But by making a conscious effort to build and hone our non-verbal communication skills, it’s possible for caregivers to communicate more clearly and effectively with those in our care.
Here are some of the key ways that you can improve your body language fluency as an Alzheimer’s care provider:
- Eye Contact. Maintain eye contact to convey that you’re paying attention to a person coping with Alzheimer’s. Don’t avoid eye contact during conversation. Doing so conveys dismissiveness. Eye contact should be made at their eye level or below — not above, which gives the impression of dominance.
- Facial Expressions. Always be conscious of what your facial expressions are saying. In day-to-day conversation, it’s easy to say one thing and have a raised eyebrow or a twist of the mouth say another. When these expressions are the only thing the recipient can understand, the words your using aren’t what matter.
- Open Posture. Keeping an open posture is a key part of body language. An open posture — facing the person, chest forward, no crossed arms or legs — tells a person that you’re focused on them, open to their concerns, and engaged with them emotionally.
- Avoid Tics and Distractions. Small tics and distractions can show that you’re agitated, angry, or bored when spending time with a person. Tapping your armrest, bouncing your knee, checking your phone, or multi-tasking can communicate that you’re not invested in the person.
- Use Gestures. Using your hands and objects around you to communicate simple messages can do wonders when caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. However, it’s important not to overuse gestures, which can agitate or confuse those with Alzheimer’s.
Using Body Language to Communicate
Body language is a highly effective tool for communication, but it’s a limited one. So it’s important to know what you can and can’t communicate by using body language.
For instance, complex thoughts and directions require verbal language. There is nothing your facial expression or posture can do to tell someone with Alzheimer’s that it’s time to go to the bathroom or that someone has come to visit.
What body language can communicate, however, is much more important. Your body language conveys care, it conveys trust, and it conveys love. For a person with Alzheimer’s, these messages are extremely powerful. They make a person feel valuable, cared for, and comfortable.
Someone with Alzheimer’s might not be able to understand the words “I’m here for you,” or “You can trust me,” or “I love you.” But body language offers a way to make these messages clear. For those of us who care for those with Alzheimer’s, it’s an invaluable tool.
Visiting Angels is America’s choice in home care. Since 1998, Visiting Angels locations across the country have been helping elderly and disabled individuals by providing care and support in the comfort of home. In addition to senior home care and adult care, Visiting Angels provides dementia care and Alzheimer’s care for individuals suffering from memory disorders. There are now more than five hundred Visiting Angels locations nationwide.