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

We must remember that someone who cannot talk is very vulnerable. They can’t say what feels good or express discomfort, pain, wants or needs. Feeling so isolated, powerless and misunderstood can be frightening, which can lead to difficult behaviors, mood swings and depression. It is crucial for both professional caregivers and family caregivers to take the time to connect with noncommunicative seniors in any way possible, even if it may not yield visible results.

Utilizing Touch Therapy

If you are relying on touch to communicate with a senior, you must be very attentive to their nonverbal cues, such as body language. Look for subtle changes in behavior, expression, breathing and posture to see what you should continue or what you should change. Before providing hands-on care or expressing physical affection, it is wise to gently tell your loved one what you are going to do first. For example, say, “I’m going to rub lotion on your arm now. Does that feel good?” or, “I’m going to give you a hug because you mean so much to me.” Just keep the conversation on your part soothing and your touch light. If you apply any lotion or other products, make sure it is warm but not hot. Think of what you would find comforting if the situation were reversed.

If your elder doesn’t seem to like too much touching, which may vary from day to day, then honor that. Touch therapy can be a simple gesture like holding hands, but it goes a long way to show a senior that someone is physically there for them and interested in their well-being.

Utilizing a Senior’s Sense of Hearing

It can feel awkward at first to try to have a “conversation” with a loved one who may not comprehend what you’re saying or be able to respond. When interactions are so one-sided, it can feel like you’re talking at the person, but this connection is still beneficial. Some practice can help you get past the discomfort.

If you’re not sure what to talk about, fill your loved one in on what is happening in your life or what’s new with extended family members. Talk about familiar things, such as friends or past events they would remember with pleasure. The important thing is to keep the subject matter light and upbeat. Our elders may understand far more than we think they do. Incorporating both touch therapy and pleasant conversation can be very comforting to a senior. Doing so can give you a task to focus on while you chat, such as brushing your loved one’s hair, rather than dwelling on trying to fill the silence.

Music and Books Can Be Helpful Communication Tools for Caregivers

Listening to music can be a healing pastime for nonverbal seniors. In fact, I purchased a CD player for my dad’s room at the nursing home. He loved big band music and I kept him supplied with new CDs that were easy to find online. On his better days, he even would “direct” the orchestra while listening, much to the puzzlement of strangers who walked by his room and the loving amusement of the nursing home staff. On days when he was less alert and couldn’t respond, I would still play his music for him as he lay in bed. The tunes seemed to help him relax.

If your loved one enjoyed music in their younger days, see if you can find a way to provide them with a way to listen to their favorite genres, artists or songs. They may not be able to work a stereo, MP3 player or other audio device, so make sure they’ll have some sort of assistance to set up and/or play music before making the investment. Include a few different types of music that can be played, depending on your loved one’s mood. Opting for loud, dramatic selections while a senior is riled up or not feeling well isn’t ideal. For example, my dad responded best to slower, quieter songs like sentimental ballads on his bad days.

Some seniors may enjoy being read to. You could find your loved one’s favorite books and read a chapter or two aloud during each visit, depending on their level of enjoyment. Favorite Bible verses and poems are also popular options. Again, try to keep the material uplifting. Whether or not a senior comprehends what you are reading isn’t all that important. Just look to see if there are signs of satisfaction. The sound of your voice may be all that matters.

Forging Deeper Connections Can Improve a Senior’s Quality of Life

Contentment is what we are looking for here. Never forget how vulnerable this person is and that it is your responsibility to monitor their body language. It’s likely that you’ll find it is possible to make some memorable moments with your elder if you put your mind to it. Light massage with a scented lotion or oil, holding a hand, reading, singing, playing music, praying aloud—all these things will add quality to your visits. These options definitely beat sitting there, watching the clock and wondering if you are just wasting your time.