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Communicating with elders who cannot speak

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Many elders who have suffered strokes or have dementia are not capable verbal communication. If they are confined to a nursing home, often people are reluctant to visit, as the visitor doesn't know what to say or do. People stay away out of fear. Here are some tips to communicate with those who can't speak.

There are ways to communicate with an elder who can't speak. If you are visiting someone who you don't know intimately, it's good to ask family members or those who care for the person what that person likes.

  • Does he like to be touched?
  • Does she like music?
  • Does he like being read to?
  • Should you just sit and read yourself, hoping that your mere presence has some effect?

I remember many people who loved my father but couldn't bring themselves to visit him after brain surgery left him demented. He often slept, and when he was awake he seem a frightening version of the person who he had been. So, people stayed away.

This broke my heart, as I knew Dad longed to see these people. He couldn't understand how hard it was for them to see him so changed. He couldn't understand that they didn't know what to do if they did visit him. If they had only known how to handle a visit, it would have helped Dad have a better quality of life.

How Do You Communicate?

If the person likes to be touched, you can start by gently holding one hand. Be aware of how the elder responds to this touch. You're watching for body language here. They may not be able to respond with a squeeze, but do they seem startled or do they withdraw? This may not mean they don't want touch, or it could be that you were too quick and need to move more slowly.

Most people respond well to a light touch, if it doesn't seem too intimate. Many elders can benefit from light massage. Again, this should only be done by someone who is sensitive to body language. A gentle back rub or taking time to rub lotion onto their arms and legs can be a soothing element for the elder and make the visitor feel that the visit is welcomed and noticed. Only do this is you are close to them.

Reaching Out Through Music and Reading

Touch isn't appropriate for every person. However, you may also be able to communicate through music and reading.

Music. Music can be soothing and even healing, and rarely offends. Dad loved the big band sound, and I kept a CD player in his room. Yes, it was something for him to listen to when he was alone. But a visitor or caregiver singing along or even being silly and dancing could bring him out of a sleepy, bored slump. Other times, there would be no reaction from him, but I knew he liked the music, so I played it anyway. I felt it reached him on some level.

Many elders love spiritual songs, often hymns they grew up with. This music, especially for the very religious, can have a healing effect on them even if they show no reaction. Be careful, however, that you don't give their room a pre-funeral atmosphere. Find religious songs of hope and spirit. Again, watch body language to see how the person responds to the music you choose.

Reading. Reading to someone who can't speak is another way to "be there" with them, whether or not they respond to you. Find out what they liked reading in their past. Did they like adventure stories or the Bible? Did they like romance or science fiction? You may find that coming into the room with a smile and telling the person that you've brought a favorite book you want to share is good therapy for you both. Sit comfortably, read aloud at a soothing rate, and again, watch the body language. Even if there is no reaction, the person is likely to know it's your voice and that you are there with them.

A person who can't speak may be extremely vulnerable. Never lose sight of this. Watch body language for clues as to enjoyment or distress. Find out likes and dislikes from caregivers. Then give them the pleasure of your company in any way you can.

You may find that you've never enjoyed a book so much as when you use it to bring joy to another.