When words begin to fail during dementia those who care for them must learn other methods to communicate. One of those methods is to understand non-verbal communication (body language).
We continuously send and receive body signals, both consciously and subconsciously, whether accompanied by words or not. Our gestures and body positioning communicate a great deal of information.
Our gestures can substitute or accentuate what we are attempting to communicate. We automatically wave to someone we know, point, beckon, or wave our hands around when speaking animatedly.
Regardless of whether we are aware of body language, the message still gets sent and received. A person might demonstrate feeling defensive with their arms folded, aggressive with hands on hips, impatience tapping their foot, or shame when eyes look down. We shrug our shoulders when we don’t know something, tilt our head to show the direction the person took, or turn our backs on someone we don’t like.
Families of people with dementia need to learn how to use and read facial expressions and body posturing when their loved ones’ words begin to fail.
At the assisted living facility, residents are continuously expressing themselves. Walter sits on the sofa hiding his face in his hands, while next to him Maria has her arms wrapped tightly around herself. Jerry is pacing back and forth. Louise stands at the door, touching each person as they enter. Sally sits in the empty dining room, looking around expectantly, while Mary, in the garden, is smiling at the flowers.
Touch is a universally understood nonverbal communication. A strong or fleeting handshake tells a lot about a person. Everyone understands the meanings of a hug, a push, a caress, or a slap. Children thrive when lovingly touched and become damaged when subjected to physical abuse. At a funeral, the bereaved get consoling hugs, while the winner of the basketball game gets exuberant ones from teammates. We kiss those we love and those we greet.
Could there be any communication more deeply understood than to touch a person with dementia? Even in the nonverbal later stages, the message is sent and received. When they are upset touch their cheek or rub their forehead; it’s what most moms did to console. Cup their hand in yours and talk to them at eye level. Use body lotion regularly especially with a foot or hand massage which calms while stimulating circulation and acupressure points. And brushing hair, and doing nails activate our primal grooming instincts. Most of all of this should be incorporated into the morning care routine. You’ll find both you and your loved one will have a better day.
Touch conveys so much more than words, and for the person with dementia, it allows them to get or stay “in touch” with you.