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What is the role of non-verbal communication in engagement in the arts?

This step explores how arts-based practices can be equally accessible by those living with a dementia who experience a language barrier.
Communication isn’t just about words. Communication is about all forms of communication, and nonverbal communication is vital. So people can tell us how they feel by the way they look, their gestures, their expression in their eyes, their physical movements, their posture. Many ways in which people communicate nonverbally will tell us about how they feel. Nonverbal route, I went down that route because I was observing that when we were talking to people living with dementia, they were struggling with words. They were struggling to understand sometimes what a word meant, struggling to remember what that word might be when they were speaking with us. So I thought, what if we removed that barrier?
And it came from me wanting to communicate better with someone living with dementia. What if we removed that as a barrier? And then we can see what happens. And so we took the language out. I took the language out because there’s stats out there that say that most of our communication happens through body language and tone of voice, and it’s only about 17% which is done verbally. That’s why I took the language out, and it’s had extraordinary results as soon as we took the language out because we might have stopped talking, but people living with dementia have begun speaking, and they basically talk to us throughout the interactions for about an hour. And I have to tell you this.
We were touring with a show just last week, and we had a care home phone us and say, ‘There was a woman who hasn’t spoken for about a year, and she is now speaking as a result of having experienced your nonverbal multi-sensory interactive show.’ People often ask us how can you still communicate if you’re not speaking to somebody, and I go back to saying it’s about body language. It’s about being very observant about how someone is communicating. We don’t always have to do it through words. It’s about your interest in another human being. It’s about you learning how someone else wants to communicate.
So if someone is just sitting there tapping their foot, we should be observant enough to see that and tap our feet in response, thereby making a connection and saying to the other person, I see what you’re doing, I understand what you’re doing, and you are in harmony with somebody. And that’s how you start opening up a different kind of communication channel. Even if people aren’t verbal, they can still communicate with you because they will do things like– so for instance, I’ve said that we work with people very much on the advanced spectrum. So you will see people slumped like this. And then suddenly, they might look up like this. That’s communication. They’re already speaking to us.
They might have their eyes closed, and they’ll open their eyes, which already tells us they’re looking around and they’re trying to connect with us. That’s the way I think that we want to communicate. So it doesn’t have to be just through words.

This step explores how arts-based practices can be equally accessible by those living with a dementia who experience a language barrier, either through decreased language abilities or due to cultural language barriers.

Barbara Stephens and Arti Prashar explain how people – including people living with dementia, artists, and carers – can connect with, and contribute to, the arts non-verbally, and how people can make their voices heard even if they are no longer verbal.

You will be encouraged to:

  • Think of engagement in the arts as a sensory experience, and by doing so will broaden your appreciation of what it means to participate in, contribute to, or enjoy the arts

  • Understand arts-based practices as transferable tools that can be applied to day-to-day life experiences

  • Reflect on why people can find it difficult to communicate with others, especially with people who have a dementia diagnosis, by asking ‘What makes us feel that people living with dementia are so different?’

How often do you think about the way in which you use non-verbal communication? If you live with dementia yourself, or if you are a caregiver to somebody who lives with the diagnosis, in what ways have you become increasingly reliant on non-verbal communication (if at all)?

CREDITS We would like to thank Victor Rios/ Spare Tyre for providing the supplementary footage ‘The Garden’ for inclusion in this video.
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Dementia and the Arts: Sharing Practice, Developing Understanding and Enhancing Lives

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