Would sign language help dementia patients with speech difficulties?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Have there been any studies of people using sign language or language charts to help communicate when the later stages of dementia make speech difficult?

Expert Answer

Helene Bergman, LMSW, is a certified geriatric care manager (C-ASWCM) and owner of Elder Care Alternatives, a professional geriatric care management business in New York City. She consults with nursing homes and daycare programs to develop specialized programs for Alzheimer's patients.

Communication and dementia is a very challenging issue and you raise an interesting question. There are many aspects to communication and later stage dementia patients require a special language of which signs are very important. Spoken sentences need to be short, clear and transmitted slowly. Seniors with dementia may also suffer hearing loss so they need the speaker to make eye contact and keep them focused. They are alert to the facial expression of the speaker and highly sensitive to body language and speaking tone even more so than the words being spoken. Thus, many caregivers use 'sign language' but not in the conventional sense. They model a behavior (like pick up the spoon, pat the chair, hold up a coat) rather than use words that may no longer have meaning to the patient. It is crucial, therefore, that the caregiver know if the patient's verbal comprehension is compromised (i.e. aphasia) and begin to use more of a kinetic approach (touch) or signs to communicate better.