The Art of Listening: Connecting to Your Loved One with Nonverbal Communication

For loved ones living with Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia or progressive neurological conditions, the ability to communicate verbally slowly disappears. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, a loved one will repeat themselves, have trouble finding the right words and eventually won’t be able to speak or understand what others say. In the latest stages of such diseases, caregivers and family members have to learn the language of nonverbal communication in order to connect with their loved one.

“Having trouble communicating with a loved one is often the most frustrating part of caring for someone with memory loss or a chronic illness that limits their speech,” says Diane Reier, Lifestyle Specialist at Aspired Living® of Prospect Heights, a senior living community in Prospect Heights, IL. “Not being able to say what they want is equally as frustrating for the loved one. However, it is possible for families to learn how to communicate in ways other than words.

Even when they can’t express themselves, people in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease are often very intuitive and sensitive to emotion. You can learn how to care for your loved one’s spirit as you care for their physical health by utilizing communication techniques that support and comfort them, rather than frustrate and confuse.”

Coming to Terms with Their Loss for Words

Although Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias may be the most common occurrences of loss of speech or communication difficulties, other disorders, chronic conditions and senior-related health problems can also make using nonverbal communication techniques necessary. A few examples include:

  • Stroke and subsequent aphasia
  • Untreated hearing loss
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Huntington’s disease

Most of these conditions are progressive in nature, so the ability to communicate verbally slowly diminishes over time. By the later stages, those living with these health problems experience the negative impact of their loss of speech on their overall well-being, hindering their interactions with others, social connections and the ability to access the proper care for their physical health.

Nonverbal Communication Techniques to Try

If your loved one is living with Alzheimer’s disease or another condition that limits their use and understanding of language, you can still show them that you care by learning several nonverbal techniques for communicating. Experts from the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America® (AFA) and the Institute on Aging offer several ways to use nonverbal communication to express your love, care and concern. A few techniques include:

  • Body Language – Experts agree that those with cognitive impairments such as dementia can be extremely intuitive and sensitive about the emotions of those around them. Your loved one is likely able to pick up on your frustrated mood and reflect it in their behavior. Pay attention to your body language when interacting with your loved one, and consider what your posture and movements communicate about how you’re feeling.
  • Tone of Voice – Even if your loved one has trouble speaking, their ability to understand what you say can last much longer. When speaking to your loved one, remember to speak with a calm tone of voice. Enunciate your words clearly and talk at a relaxed pace to help give your loved one time to process what you say.
  • Eye Contact – When speaking to your loved one, be sure to make eye contact. Face them straight on and try to get on their level, sitting down or kneeling if need be. Making eye contact helps them pay attention and concentrate while you’re talking.
  • Visual Cues – If your loved one has trouble understanding your instructions, try to communicate using visual cues to help them follow along. Make gestures, hand them objects or point to things. For example, if you’re trying to tell them to brush their teeth, make a brushing motion and hand them their toothbrush.
  • Physical Touch – A gentle, caring touch can sometimes communicate more than words. Be generous when making contact with your loved one. However, be careful to avoid startling them from behind or making sudden movements that could seem invasive or threatening. Also, be sure to allow your loved one personal space when they need it.
  • Humor – Laughter can lighten your loved one’s mood and help give them a sense of inclusion and normalcy. Sometimes, laughing with your loved one can be a great gift for both of you. Allow humor to be a part of your caregiving communication (as long as it’s not at the expense of your loved one). Share funny stories or watch old comedy films together.
  • Keep Talking – Even after your loved one has lost the ability to speak, and you’re no longer sure if they can understand what you’re saying, keep talking anyway. Conversation shows that you are paying attention and that you still care. Carrying on a conversation, albeit one-sided, is a small way of maintaining your loved one’s dignity and sense of self-worth throughout the later stages of the disease.

Making the Connections That Count

If your loved one is nearing the later stages of Alzheimer’s or another speech-limiting disease, learning some nonverbal communication techniques can make a huge difference in how both you and your loved one manage their progression. Knowing how to connect with one another, no matter what difficulties stand between you, can be a great source of comfort and increase your loved one’s quality of life.

“If you could use more information or guidance on nonverbal communication, the team at Aspired Living® of Prospect Heights can help,” shares Diane. “Our experienced caregivers are highly trained to connect with our senior residents who live with cognitive diseases. We know firsthand how difficult communication can be, as well as how rewarding it is to learn how to make those vital connections.”

We Would Love to Hear from You!

If you have comments or questions about our blog, we’d love to hear from you. We also welcome you to share any caregiving insights or experiences in our comments section.

Live Well. Age Well. Be Well.

Offering Independent, Assisted Living and A Knew Day Memory Support, Aspired Living® of Prospect Heights is a distinctive senior living community designed to offer seniors residing in the Chicago Northwest Suburbs area a fresh alternative to “typical” senior living communities.

Aspired Living® of Prospect Heights provides residents with the ideal balance of personalized support, dignified privacy and enhanced independence complemented by luxurious amenities and our life-enriching, award-winning VIVA!SM programming by Pathway to Living®.

Managed by Pathway to Living®, an innovator in senior living, Aspired Living® offers the choice of a private studio or a one- or two-bedroom apartment and the beauty of a brand new community, stunningly appointed and decorated for unsurpassed comfort and style by the award-winning senior living design firm, Thoma-Holec Design, Inc.

For more information, please call Diane at 847-243-6920.

Disclaimer: The articles and tip sheets on this website are offered by Aspired Living® of Prospect Heights for general informational and educational purposes and do not constitute legal or medical advice. For legal or medical advice, please contact your attorney or physician.