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ASL: Help ALZ for Better Communication with Less Stress

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Teri DluznieskiI was reading a post in one of the Dementia support groups. And a very unrelated thought came to mind. I wondered if anyone ever tried teaching sign language to the elderly/ALZ patient? The incorporation of sign language could potentially bypass a lot of the frustration involved with communication.

I wonder if this in part is because in today’s society we equate language with communication. And we equate language with speech. We are a very verbal species in the modern age. This is even more true in the computer age. Granted, now with the advances in technology, we are incorporating more podcasts ( audio) and video ( visual) into our interactions. But, we are also doing this at the expense of our more basic and intuitive aspects of communication. Voice and speaking coaches understand how potent this invisible element is– they make thousands of dollars, teaching people how to control their non-verbal communication. Sign language evolved out of intuitively communicating with people who cannot hear.  It just makes sense, doesn’t it?  So, why not consider this for Alzheimer’s?

Sign language is a bit of a hybrid, in terms of language. Combining sign, and language, and body-cues.  It is more organic, naturally– a ” whole language”  where nuance and tone are intrinsic to the information.  The speed of a gesture can communicate impatience just as effectively as tone of voice, for example.  In written language so much of that is lost.  It is so important that we have developed ways to include emotion in our text – smiley faces and emoticons… doesn’t this demonstrate the strength and desire for ” whole language” in our human interactions?

There is one thing I particularly like about the idea of teaching sign language for Alzheimer’s and Dementia. While it is language, it incorporates the kinesthetic aspect. It is language that is embedded into the muscle memory. Muscle memory is the strongest memory in the body. It’s why we say, you never forget how to ride a bike. That information is deeply engrained in the muscles.

In fact, the capacity and power of combining muscle memory and other information is so potent, that it is used in Waldorf education: to teach children things like multiplication tables.. 1,2,3 steps. Clap. 4,5,6, steps, clap. And the children have their multiplication tables in their muscle memory. Special schools and programs also incorporate muscle-learning to teach dyslexic children how to write. By making big letters with their arms- the children learn how to FEEL the difference between a B and a D, for example.

And it is important to note, that long before we developed speech, and writing and verbal communications that facilitate our lives… we communicated with each other. Communication predates language by millions of years. And the earliest language, was probably very basic and fundamental. Water. No/stop. Food/buffalo… a hybrid of word and meaning… Just like small children do today:)

I am guessing that sign language, even though it is language, utilises different areas of the brain, or, that it combines two different areas to work together.. which strengthens the ability. So, much like an infant, who actually possesses language far earlier than they master speech (sign language for babies has been an amazing implementation)… I wonder if maybe someone has, or could, develop a basic sign language for Alzheimer’s. a sort of base-set, of things that might need communicating… so that when the speech-language center falters.. the kinesthetic-sign language can kick in…

And, the process of learning basic signs.. can be good brain stimulus for an Alzheimer patient. And my guess is… if a sign gets made and an outcome happens.. it could be the Helen Keller/ water breakthrough; where a deaf-mute-blind child– finally- connects the symbols being made, with the water that is running over her hands. .. It only takes one “Aha!”  And the second sign becomes easier to connect.. . After that.. they pick up more and more, and more quickly…

Many caregivers are intuitively using sign language, conceptually. They use gestures to mimic and simplify communication. Thumbs-up and thumbs down signs.. are whole-language concepts conveyed very economically. There is little for the verbal language centers to have to process. Intuitive comprehension kicks in. “ Am I okay?” a nod or a thumbs-up in response.. it is like sending whole-packet data… rather than breaking it down into linear language, as writing and speech does.

It may be, also, that sign language can bypass the blockages in verbal comprehension and any hearing-related issues… to cut more directly to the physical or emotional “need.” Being thirsty– perhaps, using thirst as an example.. the body-brain will respond more “honestly” without the verbal-speech and conscious mind in between. Perhaps someone is thirsty, but is having a hard time speaking at the moment. They may say NO, which is more of a reflection of their frustration, than it is about their thirst.

We all use “sign language” concepts, all the time. We all, always communicate with facial expressions, and with our bodies. WE, as a species, relied on these things, long before we developed sophisticated speech. This is part of what makes me wonder if we may be prone (?)… to, or have a deeper, older, more primal (?) predisposition for understanding ” body language” or sign language….

Long after an Alzheimer or dementia patient has lost the capacity for sophisticated speech.. they understand tone of our voice (reading emotion)… and they read and respond to our facial expressions and cues. There are some signs, like the hand up STOP, signal, or shrugging the shoulders– we ALL understand perfectly, with no words or explanations required, perhaps more so than mere words…

Do you have any experience or success stories with using non-verbal communication? Let us know in the comments below!



I am an Education Specialist, Health Coach and Author. I work with aspects of the teachings I have learned from Andean shamanic and cosmology, to health, nutrition and education.  Everything is energy. Energy must flow. Like water, when it does not flow, it stagnates and is not healthy. These techniques help your life to flow. I have been initiated into many of the ancient lineages and learned ceremonies, rites of passage and healing techniques.  I have worked as a healer and done workshops and taught some of these aspects – passing the teachings on.

Author of:
Dancing in Your Bubble : ancient teaching, modern healing
Natural Support for Alzheimer’s
Getting a Handle on Happy : find and fix causes of stress and depression
The Naturally Smarter Kid : a parent’s guide to helping kids succeed in school and life
Cafe of the Hungry Ghosts : behind the veil of ordinary – a paranormal-ish fiction book





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