Now that we’re in the depths of winter and the cold is biting, I’ve been reflecting on that truly magnificent summer full of sunshine. With this sunshine came the familiar presence of sunglasses adorning the faces of family, friends, colleagues and passers-by. Despite all these opportunities to get used to it, I still find it difficult to hold a comfortable conversation with people adorning heavily tinted sunglasses and it reminds me of the importance of eye contact for us all in our communication with people. It’s certainly something to think about over the festive season, especially if you’re spending it with a friend or family member with dementia.
Eye contact has a significant role in attracting somebody’s attention and engaging in social interaction and so it can feel very uncomfortable talking to someone whose eyes are obscured. Without eye contact we can feel uncomfortable, we can feel that the other person is disinterested in us. The person may be saying things that indicate they are interested, but as our brains interpret non-verbal cues (such as eye contact and facial expression) far quicker than the spoken word, poor eye contact hinders our ability to interpret from one moment to the next. Think of all those messages you are able to quickly convey to friends and family just with your eyes, without the need to say anything – love, anger, patience, danger, fear and so on. On a daily basis we are attracted to those who have ‘kind eyes’ and ‘eyes that sparkle’, ‘twinkly eyes’ ‘playful eyes’ and so on. We often say we can read someone from what’s in their eyes, that it is hard to hide our feelings in our body language and facial expressions.
Early on in infancy (as early as 6 months) humans begin to look to their parents’/carer’s eyes to figure out what they are trying to convey. It is a skill which is developing before the ability to understand the spoken word and continues to develop throughout life. Have you ever had a whole conversation across the room from your friend or partner, using only your eyes? If you have, you know this can work; it’s intimate, trustworthy and you truly feel you have connected with the other person. For a person with dementia, a ‘conversation through eyes’ may be a less difficult task than speaking itself – You don’t have to take turns expressing yourselves, following conversational rules as you do with talking.
So, when the spoken word begins to be difficult for a person with dementia, it is no wonder that the person begins to rely on eye contact to decipher situations. Eye contact can greatly improve the quality of interactions and make people feel more connected. Making greater eye contact with a person with dementia can increase their understanding of a situation, provide reassurance and help them to feel more confident, valued and that you are a trustworthy presence in their lives.
If you’re spending the festive period with someone with dementia, remember the enormous power that eye contact has in developing and sustaining a feeling of safety and connectivity.
Have a wonderful Christmas!
Sue Hinds, Dementia Carers Services Lead