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Become a ‘Detective’ to Read Communication Cues in People with Alzheimer’s

Learning to communicate with someone living with Alzheimer’s disease can be a frustrating exercise for any caregiver. We can only imagine how frustrating it is for the person who is living  with the disease. But effective communication is possible, if we take the time to observe the person’s non-verbal cues.  

Ironically, it is sometimes harder to read the cues of a person who is in the early stages of memory loss, compared to someone who is in the later stages of the Alzheimer’s journey. In the early stage of the disease, people will struggle mightily to find the right words to communicate, and become increasingly agitated. Imagine when you know the word, it’s on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t speak it. Now imagine feeling this way all day, every day. This is when , as caregivers, we need to become the ‘detective,’ looking for clues as to what they might be trying to express to us.

Understanding non-verbal communication with residents with dementia is important. Facial grimacing, crossed arms, wincing; these are often the signs of discomfort or pain.

Residents may pace, rub their hands together, point, tap their fingers or grunt.  Sometimes in speech, they may have what dementia experts call a ‘word salad,’ meaning a bunch of words tossed together in a sentence that does not make sense to us. But the key is to watch the person with dementia while they are talking to you. Watch their eyes, and be aware of their body movements. Be aware of what’s happening around you at the attempt of this communication.

Are they displaying positive signs? Bright, happy eyes? Smiling with their head up? A display of closed arms, hands, or fists with a frown could signal a need for a change in environment. The room, for example, might be too loud at that moment for them, and they could be overwhelmed and need a quiet space. 

Think of five things when trying to communicate with someone with dementia.

 What is this person trying to tell me?

 Are they in pain?

Are they hot/cold?

Are they expressing a need to use the bathroom?

Could they be hungry or thirsty?

Could they be tired/fatigued?

As humans, our basic needs of food, shelter, water and sleep must be met before we can enjoy things like hobbies and time spent with loved ones. This is still true of people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. At Carillon, we focus on maintaining self- esteem through securing a resident’s basic needs and enhancing their sense of well-being. We know that by doing so, we are optimizing our residents chances of a successful, contented life.

The Alzheimer’s journey doesn’t have to be a lost world. We can navigate some roads for them in taking little extra steps in understanding how to communicate better with a loved one who is living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

–contributed by Jennifer Mogle, Carillon Assisted Living of Hillsborough and Mooresville




Posted in Alzheimer's and Dementia Care, Perspectives on Alzheimer's, Resources on January 16, 2014

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