How to Communicate with Someone Who Can No Longer Speak
Years ago, I stumbled upon a video that remains vivid in my mind. In it, an elderly couple who had spent a lifetime devoted to one another was coping with the wife’s late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The wife lived in a nursing home and was unhappy, aggressive and even combative with the staff. Her condition had robbed her of her ability to communicate, so no one knew what was upsetting her or how to help her relax.
Instinctually, the husband decided he would do what he’d always done: he climbed into her bed with her and held her. He cuddled with her, stroked her face and told her he loved her. He spent hours just snuggling and holding her.
Slowly, his wife responded. This angry, difficult woman became easier for the staff to handle. She was friendly, cooperative and generally happy—much like she had been before the dementia-related behaviors and mood swings set in. She was still unable to communicate effectively with her husband and the nursing home employees, but she finally seemed to find some contentment.
The Power of Physical Touch: I found this particular story riveting and poignant. Human touch has long been known to have soothing, healing qualities, especially for those who are unable to communicate using traditional methods such as speech and writing. For example, researchers found that babies who live in orphanages where they are not held and cuddled cease developing normally and are at a greater risk of death. The need for human touch and interaction begins at birth and never goes away. Although it may become increasingly difficult or impossible to engage in two-way communication as we age, our desire for interpersonal connections remains.
Why Seniors Lose Their Ability to Communicate: Many of us are caring for aging loved ones who can no longer communicate with us. Seniors may lose their ability to talk or understand language—a condition known as aphasia—due to ailments like stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or brain injury. There are many types of aphasia, and the severity of symptoms varies from person to person. However, even minor impairments in speech and language processing can be very frustrating for both caregivers and patients to work through.
Both parties have the desire to communicate but their abilities simply do not align. When caregivers and other family members visit an elder and see them in a non-responsive mode, they tend to just sit in silence or pop on the television for some background noise, uncomfortably watching the clock tick away. In situations like this, caregivers feel like they’re just putting in time, so to speak. Many even feel like there’s little use visiting with someone who cannot communicate, especially if they’ll forget the visit later anyway.
While this is a common belief, particularly among those who are not involved in providing hands-on care, this could not be further from the truth. In patients with chronic, progressive illnesses and terminal health conditions, it’s said that hearing is the last sense to fail. Judging by what I’ve read and witnessed firsthand as a caregiver, I believe that the sense of touch is right up there with hearing. You’d be surprised by the kind of connection you can forge with a seemingly “lost” mute elder by using only these two senses to “communicate.”
Bridging the Communication Barrier…
Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. “I hold onto your book as a life preserver and am reading it slowly on purpose…I don’t want it to end.” …Craig William Dayton, Film Composer
Support a caregiver or jump-start discussion in support groups with real stories – for bulk orders of Minding Our Elders e-mail Carol