"Show Me Your Happy Face!" Facial Communication in Dementia Care

Despite what you heard time and again as a child, the answer is no…using facial expressions for an extended period will not make your face freeze that way. But when caring for a loved one with dementia, regular use of deliberate and positive facial expressions can provide concrete reassurance and solidify what you are trying to communicate.

“As dementia progresses, people lose the ability to understand spoken communication and to express themselves verbally,” explains Teleia Farrell, Community Relations Director of YourLifeTM of West Melbourne, a Memory Care community in West Melbourne, Florida. “As seniors living with dementia struggle to understand what people are saying, body language and facial expressions become valuable communication tools.”

In this post, we’ll focus on the importance of facial expressions as you communicate with your loved one and what they may be telling you with their expressions as well.

How Your Loved One Reads Your Facial Expressions

The main emotions expressed through facial movements include joy, anger, sadness, contempt, surprise, fear, and disgust. You can tell if someone has good news or bad news immediately by the look on their face. People can often make or break a job interview by facial expressions alone. Even to people with advancing dementia, facial expressions reveal what someone else is feeling and saying.

Paying attention to your facial expressions and ensuring they match what it is you actually want to communicate is essential. You could be saying all the right words, but if you follow them up with an eye roll or jaw clench, the mixed message can be confusing or upsetting. Try starting your conversation with your loved one with direct eye contact and a smile, setting them at ease. When they struggle to come up with a word and you start to lose your patience, focus on keeping your facial expression positive.

Unfortunately, facial expressions become increasingly difficult to read as dementia progresses. Studies have shown that positive emotions are easier for those with advanced dementia to recognize. As you begin to notice cognitive deterioration in your loved one, you can expect that their ability to understand emotional expressions on people’s faces will also deteriorate. Don’t expect them to recognize that you are frustrated with them as readily as they recognize that you are happy.

How You Can Read Your Loved One’s Facial Expressions

You can also use your loved one’s facial expressions to your advantage and theirs when they have trouble using words to express what they need. For instance, verbalizing pain may be impossible for your loved one in advanced stages of dementia. However, you can spot the signs in their facial expressions when you know what to look for, such as grimacing or furrowed brows.

What About Face Masks?

As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and try to keep ourselves and our elderly loved ones safe, face masks are essential but tend to get in the way of effective nonverbal communication techniques and even facial recognition. Studies show that face masks, properly worn, make emotional recognition extremely difficult for people living with Alzheimer’s disease, in particular. Plus, even without masks, facial recognition becomes more challenging as dementia progresses.

If the typical cloth or disposable face masks make it too confusing or upsetting for your loved one, consider wearing a clear face mask that will allow your loved one to see your smile or read your lips. Note: Clear face masks are different than face shields. Shields are not as effective at protecting you or the people around you from respiratory droplets and are not recommended by the CDC as mask alternatives in most cases.

TIP: When wearing a mask with your loved one, avoid presenting other drastic changes in your appearance, such as hair color or style. Announcing yourself and your relationship to your loved one when you enter the room also can help them recognize you quicker and put them at ease.

Importance of Facial Expressions as Dementia Progresses

Body language reportedly accounts for 55% of our communication. When seniors with dementia diagnoses begin losing the ability to comprehend verbal communication, visual cues such as posture, gestures and facial expressions are how they understand what we are asking of them or saying to them.

Pay attention to what your face might be demonstrating as you speak. Just as you would not smile as you offer condolences to someone, be careful not to confuse or upset your loved one with inappropriate facial expressions. Offer a smile when you enter the room and a look of concern when they tell you about their discomfort. This will tell them you understand what they are saying and that you are truly listening, which can go a long way to making them feel heard and valued.

Until there’s a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, there’s YourLife™ of West Melbourne. Call today for more information! 321-206-4006

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Call us at 321-206-4006 for more information or to schedule a personal visit today.