Mirror, Mirror: How Body Language Is Reflected in the Feedback Loop

You say the right words.

You use a reassuring tone of voice.

But then you let loose a frustrated sigh, roll your eyes, shake your head, or clench your teeth.

“When communicating with people with memory loss, especially those who struggle with verbal language, what we say might not always register,” says Suzy McCann, Community Relations Director of YourLifeTM of Pensacola, a Memory Care community in Pensacola, Florida. “But nonverbal language comes across loud and clear, even to those in the later stages of dementia.”

In this post, we’ll discuss how people with advanced dementia might interpret body language, react to certain gestures and facial expressions, and how to prevent your body language from unwittingly undermining your attempts to reassure and connect with your loved one.


Body Language: How to Keep a Positive Feedback Loop Rolling

As people with dementia lose the ability to communicate with words, they will rely more heavily on non-verbal communication to express themselves and to understand what is being said to them in return. And, like words, negative body language has the power to hurt people and cause them to respond in kind – turning the communication “feedback loop” into an endless back-and-forth of negativity – or prompt them to put up walls and shut down communication – cutting off the feedback loop altogether. To keep your loved one feeling safe and communication lines open:

Keep Body Language Positive

A smile and gentle pat on the arm can relax your loved one. Kneeling or sitting so you can look them in the eye and give them your full attention during your interactions can build their trust in you. Using calm pointing gestures or acting out what you are saying can help make them more receptive to your instructions or reassurances.

Avoid Unintentional Slights

The aforementioned sighs, eye-rolls, headshakes and teeth clenches, however, can damage your loved one’s self-esteem – and your relationship – for a long time. While those knee-jerk mini stress relievers can keep us from losing our cool entirely, those flashes of frustration can signal to your loved one that they are a burden or embarrass them for not being able to care for themselves or cease their challenging behaviors.

Remember, your loved one lives in a different reality. Even the most innocuous approach can have a negative impact on their feedback loop intake and output. For example, towering over them while speaking, even in a calm, nonthreatening manner, can feel intimidating – particularly to someone who is immobile or otherwise unable to rise to your physical level – and cause them to fear or distrust you.

Any of these negative feelings can make someone with or without dementia withdraw from interactions out of embarrassment or fear of saying or doing something that might make their caregiver angry. Someone with dementia might also respond angrily because they are offended by the caregiver’s impatience or sharp “no, Dad, it is not time to go to work yet.” After all, he only asked “once.”

Watch & Learn

Most people are unaware of how much they say without saying anything. People also unconsciously mirror others’ positive body language or attitudes, so if you make a mindful effort to keep yours positive and open, your loved one will be more likely to do so, too.

So, how do you become more mindful of your body language? Try setting up a full-length mirror behind and very slightly to the side of your loved one, where your reflection is out of their sight but fully within yours. You’ll want to be able to see your natural body language while engaging earnestly with your loved one. Position the mirror so that your eyes and attention are not noticeably diverted from your loved one.

Consult the mirror to determine what messages your body language is feeding your loved one, and pay close attention to your loved one’s reactions, both verbal and nonverbal. Note what your body is saying when your loved one responds positively and what mannerisms elicit negative feedback. Things to be mindful of:

  • Is your posture relaxed?
  • Are you giving them enough personal space?
  • Are you seated at their level and maintaining eye contact?
  • Does your facial expression show affection, acceptance and interest? Does it reflect the appropriate emotion or level of concern given your conversation?
  • Are you catching yourself frowning, glaring, eye-rolling, sighing or putting off an air of impatience or boredom?
  • Are you engaging your loved one with culturally and otherwise appropriate expressions such as a nod, a smile or a gentle touch?
  • Watch how you respond to your loved one’s touch. Are you accepting? Or do you pull away or appear uncomfortable? How do they respond to your reaction?


Learn how YourLife™ of Pensacola’s life enrichment and care teams show residents they are loved and valued through all stages of memory loss. Give us a call today. 850-290-2632

The Memory Care Your Loved One Deserves.

Offering the very best in Memory Care, YourLife™ of Pensacola was designed specifically with residents in mind. We’ve created a community where residents can define their own lifestyle, based on their preferences, needs and story, all while having the peace of mind of 24-hour support and the freedom to define their own lifestyles.

Because we focus solely on Memory Care, all our resources and attention are on catering to each resident’s needs while providing unmatched peace of mind for families. Our licensed nurses and YourLife™ Personal Care Specialists are on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide personally inspired care and support, no matter your needs. With such dedicated care, our residents have the support they need to live as independently and engaged as possible.

At YourLife™ of Pensacola, YourStory comes to life. Whether you want to enjoy our exclusive activities and YourStory programming, spend time exploring our services and amenities, relax in our easy-to-navigate Memory Care neighborhoods and living areas or try something new, the choice is entirely up to you.

Call us at ​850-290-2632 for more information or to schedule a personal visit today.