Nov 19, 2014

4 Ways to Communicate More Effectively with a Person Living with Alzheimer's

85% of all communication is nonverbal and with this information in hand Alzheimer's caregivers can learn how to communicate more effectively with persons' living with dementia.

By Carole Larkin
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Alzheimer's Reading Room

Not long ago I went to a lecture on the Art of Active Listening given by David Overton, LCSW of Vitas Hospice Care. Part of the lecture was on non verbal communication, and that’s the part I want to focus on here.

It’s been said that one of the main frustrations of care partners in dealing with people with Alzheimer’s is the person’s decreasing communication skills throughout the disease. I think that most of us can agree with that statement. But, if you think about it, that statement really only applies to a person’s verbal skills.

We know that words begin to lose their meanings to people with Alzheimer’s at some point during the disease. This is part of the process of “unlearning” that takes place during the course of the disease. 

The “unlearning” is the opposite of the learning that takes place as a child grows and develops into an adult. A word can be “forgotten” but the meaning of that word is “unlearned in Alzheimer’s and related diseases.

That is one reason why deep into the cognitive diseases, that emotions are understood, but ideas and concepts fade away.

Emotions are instinctual and hence are also non verbal, but ideas and concepts are learned and are verbal. That is why emotions last throughout the diseases, but thoughts go.

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David Overton stated that 85% of all communication is non verbal, and that gestures and body language communicate more effectively than words! 

This indicates that we should pay way more attention to both our non verbal methods of communication; and, to the non verbal communication of persons' living with Alzheimer’s.

David emphasized that the keys to non-verbal communication are as follows. (And I’m giving examples related to communicating with a loved one with Alzheimer’s.)
  1. Posture and Body Orientation. The way you sit, stand, walk or hold your head creates a perception for those around you.

    Crossing your arms and sitting back in your chair means you are thinking negatively. That can prompt them to view what you are saying to them negatively and react with the famous word “No”.
  2. The Human Face. The human face demonstrates distinct body language indicators. Unlike some forms of non verbal communication, six basic facial expressions are universal. They are: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise and fear.

    Read their face and know that they are reading yours for clues as to how both of you are feeling. Use your facial expressions to convey positive emotions to them. Look especially on their face for fear. It is the hallmark emotion of people with Alzheimer’s and similar diseases; and rightfully so. When you see it on their face that is the time to comfort and reassure them of their safety and your love.
  3. Eye Contact. Good eye contact establishes trust, expresses interest and confidence.

    When you have something important to communicate to them, approach them face on at their eye level; that tells them that you respect them, that you value them and that you consider them an equal to you. Dignity is important to all of us. (Caveat: Ignore this if inappropriate in your culture)
  4. Voice volume, tone, pitch and pace. Aim for a moderate volume, resonate tone, varied pitch and pace.

    Adjust volume for hearing impairments. Try and keep your tone of voice positive and calm. Tone shows emotion as much as or more than the words you use. Give them a chance to mirror your positivity and calm. If needed, slow the pace of your speech to give them a chance to process what your words mean (in mid-stage and early late stage).
I hope that these tips may help you better control situations in mid and later stages of the disease.

More Articles on Alzheimer's and Dementia

  1. Ten Tips for Communicating with an Alzheimer's Patient
  2. 10 Steps on the Road to Joyful Caregiving
  3. Communication Tips from Individuals with Memory Loss
  4. 10 Things a Person Living with Dementia Would Tell You If They Could

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10 Steps on the Road to Joyful Caregiving


It took a long time, but I finally learned how to understand, cope, and communicate with a person living with dementia