Helping Those with Parkinson Disease to Communicate

Submitted by Nina M. Riccio on November 18, 2011

With a post-doctoral degree in aging and human development, assistant professor Tess Deshefy-Longhi was able to further her research on an aspect of Parkinson disease (PD) where she knew she could improve the quality of life for both the person with PD and his or her family: strengthening nonverbal communications skills.

“A full 70-90 percent of what we communicate to each other is non-verbal,” she explains. Yet those with PD gradually lose those traditional ways of communicating. “Their vocal tone and facial expressions often become flat, and fine motor skills are diminished leading to poorly executed, asynchronous gestures. Their expressions of anger or happiness may be basically indistinguishable, and many times are combined with raised eyebrows leading to a surprise-happy or surprise angry expression.” Medications also may cause dystonic contractions, so those with PD can appear to be scowling when, in fact, they are not feeling upset. Compounding these effects of PD is the fact that most family members don’t understand how much these communication skills have been compromised, so they become annoyed that the PD person they love no longer “seems to care” about anything.

Imagine, then, the frustration for both the person with PD and his/ her spouse. “A spouse will often tell me they ‘miss’ their PD mate, when he or she is sitting right beside them. What they mean is that they miss the positive messages between each other – a wink or a smile, for example,” Dr. Deshefy-Longhi says. She is planning on developing a pilot program with colleagues at Duke University to help those couples living with PD develop new communication skills. For example the person with PD can give a thumbs-up or down to express their happiness or anger, and spouses can learn to sit next to their partner with PD, instead of across from them. The latter helps one to distinguish emotion using a person’s vocal tones and inflections because he/she is not distracted by misleading visual cues.

The second phase of the project will be to work with healthcare providers, such as doctors, who work with people with PD. “When people with PD can’t express themselves nonverbally, doctors and other healthcare providers often assume that they lack cognitive function,” says Dr. Deshefy-Longhi. “We need to develop ways for providers and people with PD to better communicate.”

All her life experiences seem to point to this field of study, says Dr. Deshefy-Longhi, who joined Fairfield as visiting faculty last year and is now an assistant professor.  “I was in the Peace Corps in Kenya, and had to learn Swahili,” she says. “That’s when I learned to appreciate the importance of non-verbal communication!”




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