Communication involves much more than verbal speech and written language. After all, pretty much everyone knows how important things like eye contact, facial expressions, and human touch can be when communicating.
However, communicating with people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia can be challenging. This inability to communicate effectively can leave family members feeling frustrated, angry, sad, and hopeless. It can also affect the wellbeing of the person with Alzheimer’s. Utilizing alternative methods of communication can help overcome these barriers.
What is nonverbal communication?
There are different types of nonverbal communication, and each of these types often work on conjunction with one another. One type is called kinesics. This refers to movement as a means of communicating. Within kinesics there are different types of movements. These include gestures, head movements and posture, eye contact, and facial expressions. Gestures can be done subconsciously to adapt to a certain situation (usually a stressful one). Examples include repetitive clicking of a pen or nail biting. Emblems, another type of gesture, have agreed upon meanings such as American Sign Language (ASL) or sticking your thumb out to hitch a ride. The last type of gestures is called illustrators. These are what we commonly refer to as “talking with our hands.” There is no specific agreed upon meaning, but nevertheless we use them to supplement our verbal speech.
Head movements and posture can be used to signify that we understand something, or to convey assertiveness. Think of head nodding as a form of communicating agreement, and standing with our hands on our hips as communicating our assertiveness. Eye contact is another powerful type of kinesics. Humans use eye contact to establish interpersonal relationships, measure engagement in a conversation, and much more. As for facial expressions, this is a powerful form of communication where we show our emotions and reactions to situations.
Haptics is the study of touch as a means of communication. We often use touch to convey empathy, love, greetings, as well as communicate in other ways. There are different levels of communicative touch. Some, are more informal, things we would do with someone who we do not know well, while others involve much more intimacy and are reserved for people we are close with. Vocalics is simply the tone and pitch of your voice, not the words that are used in speech. This type of non-verbal communication is crucial in conveying emotions. The tone of our voice can be used to change the meaning of a sentence without changing a single word that has been spoken.
The different types of non-verbal communication go on and on. For the purposes of this article we are only focusing on touch and vocalics. Some of the struggles of communicating with loved ones who have Alzheimer’s can come in the form of them saying things that can be hurtful, or them being resistant to help that they do not think they need. One article claims that using nonverbal communication as a means to respond to these situations can make the situation better for both parties.
\When interacting with people who have Alzheimer’s both parties can become equally confused and at a loss as to how to communicate with each other. This can take a toll on the relationship and negatively impact the health of the person with Alzheimer’s. One caregiver has provided tips that may help people communicate with people with Alzheimer’s when verbal communication isn't working as well.
An example of compassionate nonverbal communication
When a person you love has Alzheimer’s speaks harshly to you and rejects your efforts to help, it can be hurtful, even if you know that he or she is not fully aware of what they are saying. As frustrating as this can get, responding in a simple and loving manner can make all the difference. While your loved one may not fully understand what is going on, people of all capabilities are able to feel when love is conveyed. One individual describes how she changed the way she was responding to her mother’s rejections. Day after day her mother would tell her that she did not need her help, and would tell her to “get out, I don’t want you here.” These hurtful words were coming from a place of confusion and frustration over the loss of control that many people with Alzheimer’s experience.
When she would try to explain to her mother why she needed to stay and help, it would just escalate the situation, and the two of them would end up having a bad day. Feeling a loss of control when people can no longer take care of themselves can be devastating and destroy their self-worth. By telling her mother that she could no longer care for herself, of course her mother responded with anger. This is not something that anyone wants to hear, even if there is some truth to it.
She continued trying to explain to her mother why she needed help. It continued to not work. This went on for a few years before she decided to try a new approach. After all, what harm could trying something new do at this point?
We often hear that love and kindness can fix anything, and sometimes it is necessary to put this into practice to see for ourselves. Eventually, she decided to respond to her mother’s rejections and frustrations in a whole new way using nonverbal communication. When her mother began rejecting her efforts to help with unkind words, she responded with love and kindness. She walked over to her mother and put her arm around her shoulder, rested her head on hers in the way that children do with their parents, and said, “I’m here now, I am going to take care of you.” She stayed like this for a moment and then turned to her mother and said, “It’s you AND me now.” Her movements, vocalics, and touch conveyed that she was on her mother’s side and was not there to work against her or fight. Her mother stopped telling her to get out.
When verbal communication fails, touch can be used to convey thoughts. Her mother was often seated in a chair that the daughter could pass by to check on her as she did things around the house. Simple gestures such as a smile while passing by or offering her hand for her mother to hold was a way for them to communicate their mutual love without words. This was a reminder to both her and her mother that despite how confusing and challenging things could get, their relationship and love for each other was still strong.
Despite the changes in the brain that occur with Alzheimer’s, the brain is still capable of registering compassion. Changing the way she responded to her mothers comments changed the course of their daily interactions. They both started having more pleasant days together and still were able to create fond memories when things tended to seem impossible. Everyone deserves love and kindness. When things get tough, offering up love can be one of the things that bring people back to each other and make them feel human again. After all, we all hear that love heals.