Non-verbal communication and dementia

If a person is finding any kind of conversation too difficult, they may use non-verbal communication. As dementia progresses, this may become the main way a person communicates. You might find these tips for communicating non-verbally useful.

What is non-verbal communication?

Non-verbal communication is communicating without the use of spoken words. You could use gestures, facial expressions and body language to communicate with the person you care for. These may become some of the main ways a person with dementia communicates as their condition progresses.

Why would a person use non-verbal communication?

Non-verbal communication may be especially important if they have reverted to the first language they learned, and you do not understand or speak this language.

If a person is finding any kind of conversation too difficult, there may be other ways that they can communicate their emotions. Art therapies and activities such as drawing, painting, music, poetry and drama can help a person with dementia to express themselves.

How can we communicate in the later stages of dementia?

During the later stages of dementia, the person may not be able to communicate much at all. It may still be helpful to talk to the person, and communicate by touch if it feels appropriate, for example by holding their hand. Even if they don’t respond very much, or at all, they may feel a level of connection with you and a sense of comfort.

Tips for non-verbal communication with a person with dementia

  • Use physical contact to communicate your interest and to provide reassurance – don’t underestimate the reassurance you can give by holding the person’s hand or putting your arm around them, if it feels appropriate.
  • Try not to sit too close to the person or stand over them to communicate – it can feel intimidating. Instead, respect their personal space and try to sit or stand at eye level.
  • The person with dementia will read and interpret your body language. Sudden movements, the tone of your voice or a tense facial expression can upset or distress them, even if the words you say are not upsetting.
  • Make sure that your body language and facial expression match what you are saying, even if this might feel a bit forced at times. For example, it can be useful to smile when talking about pleasant memories.
  • Try to learn to recognise what a person is communicating through their body language. Try to keep them engaged if they seem distracted or bored.
  • Visual prompts can be very helpful. For example, cue cards or a book of pictures of meals that a person can point to, to communicate what they’d like to eat. Technology can also help with this through apps that show pictures or videos of different types of foods. This can help the person communicate as well as stimulate their appetite.
  • The person may enjoy drawing or singing to express themselves. To find out what local activity groups are running in your area, you can search our dementia directory.

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