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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsWhat we call non-verbal communication involves using all our senses to help us gain insight into the experiences of other people and of the world around us. It involves using our face and body to convey meaning. There are a number of elements in non-verbal communication that are really important for enriching our interactions with others. When communicating with someone living with dementia, these non-verbal cues can be vitally important. They include eye contact and eye movement. This is how we know someone is trying to engage us or if they've lost concentration-- gaze or the direction and intensity of eye contact tells us a little more about the types of feeling someone is conveying. Facial expressions are also hugely important.

Skip to 0 minutes and 56 secondsThey tell us a lot about a person's emotion, their fears, their sense of joy, their surprise, their disinterest. If you're trying to encourage someone using friendly and positive words, but your facial expression shows frustration or sadness, we're all more likely to pay attention to what your face is telling us rather than the words that you were using. For someone with impaired cognition, this is likely to be relied upon even more. Using our bodies to convey meaning can be really helpful-- our posture when we sit or stand, where we stand in relation to another person tells us quite a lot about our intention, our frame of mind, and what we expect of other people before we've even uttered a word.

Skip to 1 minute and 42 secondsWe regularly gesture when we speak to supplement our description or intentions-- often using our hands to convey a wide range of things. We also convey meaning in our dress as we are all attuned to forming opinions about who someone is and how we should act around them by the clothes that they wear. Even if the people interacting with the person with dementia are doing as much as they can to support the communicative process-- where communication takes place can really help or hinder a person with dementia's ability to understand and interpret their world, converse with us, and be understood.

Skip to 2 minutes and 22 secondsIt's really important to consider the context for our interactions and to question whether this is making communication easier or more difficult. There is an immense amount of information that a person processes when communicating with others. A great deal of which can still be accessible to a person living with dementia. By making the most of a person's continuing capacity to interpret non-verbal aspects of communication, we can foster positive and enduring relationships and avoid that downward communicative spiral.

Communicating without words

Communicating without words involves using the face or body to convey meaning.

This might include becoming more aware of or noticing differences with:

  • eye contact
  • eye movement
  • gaze
  • facial expressions
  • touch
  • gestures with the hands
  • body posture
  • use of voice (tone, intonation, volume)
  • dress and bodily adornment

As carers have told us, encouraging involvement in tasks that use all the senses can spark interest and can help initiate conversation. There are many ways to stimulate interaction, such as tasting cold ice cream, feeling different textures and fabrics, hand massage or listening to music together. These can help communicate to negotiate daily tasks, but are also really important for encouraging self expression and personal connection.

When trying to initiate conversation, making physical contact with someone by touching their arm or hand could be a good signal that you want to start a conversation. However, looming over a person may trigger a negative response, especially if a person has poor vision or hearing and your presence is unexpected.

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This video is from the free online course:

Dementia Care: Staying Connected and Living Well

Newcastle University

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