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How to Read the “Non-Verbal” Cues of a Loved One With Alzheimer’s

You know more about non-verbal communication than you think. How often have you gotten a “vibe” from a friend or relative that makes you doubt they really meant what they just said? Maybe it is just a look on someone’s face, or their folded arms or hunched shoulders. They are making an emotional statement that, while not verbalized, is just as real as if it had been.

We instinctively read and react to non-verbal cues every day. When a loved one struggles with Alzheimer’s disease, your ability to interpret their cues and adjust your own communication style accordingly can make the difference between a good day and a bad one --- for both of you.

Here is a list of four key non-verbal communication touch points along with some thoughts on adjusting your own behavior to create a more positive connection with your loved one:

  1. Facial expression: Is their expression flat and disinterested? If so, they may not be emotionally connected to those around them and, therefore, less responsive to you. Everyone is different, so make note of how long they remain disconnected and what kinds of things help them to re-connect. Possibly a warm word and a touch of the fingers can bring them to a place where you are more able to communicate and engage with them.
  2. Body posture: Are they rigid or relaxed? The positioning of the body speaks volumes about receptivity. When a loved one’s posture is tense, that is your cue to take things slowly. A sudden movement, like pulling on their arm or attempting to get them to stand up could be met with resistance, or even anger. Take notice of the atmosphere. Make note of loud noises surrounding them, or other external stimuli that might be adding to their level of tension.
  3. Gestures: Are they saying “yes” but shaking their head “no”? Gestures can speak louder than words and need to be taken seriously, especially negative gestures such as banging a hand against a table or shaking a fist. That’s a clear sign that it’s time to slow your pace and calmly help your loved one find a more relaxed state. It is not a time to give commands or try to reason with them. Learn what calming methods work with your loved one and when to use them.
  4. Touch: This is a hidden treasure of communicating with a loved one with Alzheimer’s. The sense of touch can quickly have a calming effect. But grasping an arm or squeezing can just as quickly, cause anxiety and fear. A blog from the Alzheimer’s Reading Room noted the simple effectiveness of a slowly outstretched hand, held palm-up for twenty seconds, and the soothing effect that had over an individual with Alzheimer’s.

Of course, it is one thing to read a visual cue. It’s another to have the self-control to modify your own actions accordingly. Is your loved one’s posture and facial expression relaxed? This may be a good time to interact in a more meaningful way, such as sharing important information or discussing an upcoming doctor visit. Consequently, if they seem tense or combative, you’ll need to respect their emotional state and back off. Don’t push your needs ahead of theirs. Adjusting your behavior based on the cues you observe will help you make optimum use of those good moments and reduce the occurrence of angry exchanges.

Don’t neglect your own emotional health.

It’s important to take care of yourself emotionally in order to properly care for your loved one. Just as you are able to read your loved one’s non-verbal cues; they may be reading yours as well. When you are tired or frustrated, it can show. Make sure you are taking occasional respite days, and keep appointments for outings with friends. Better yet, join a local support group where you can share your ups and downs with other caregivers. Anthem Memory Care communities host monthly support groups. You can find out more about our communities here.