How to Communicate When Your Elderly Parent Can No Longer Speak

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A video I recently stumbled upon remains vivid in my mind. An elderly couple who had spent a lifetime devoted to one another was coping with the wife's Alzheimer's disease. At this point, the wife was in a nursing home. She was unhappy, aggressive and even combative with the staff. No one knew what to do with her.

On instinct, 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. He stroked her face and told her he loved her. He spent hours just snuggling and holding her.

Slowly, the wife responded. This once angry, difficult woman became easy for the staff to handle. She was, once again, friendly, cooperative and generally happy.

This particular story was recent, riveting and poignant. However, human touch has long been known to soothe a being who cannot communicate. Babies who live in orphanages where they are not held and cuddled often die. That need for human touch never goes away.

Many of us are coping with elders who can no longer communicate. Whether from a stroke, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or for some other reason, they have lost their ability to talk or seemingly respond in any manner to their loved one's efforts to communicate.

Caregivers want to communicate with them, but when they visit their elder and see them in this non-responsive mode, they tend to sit there uncomfortably watching the clock – putting in time, so to speak. There's a feeling, for many of, "what's the use?"

It's said that hearing is the last sense to go. I feel, just from what I've seen and read, that the sense of touch is right up there with hearing. Between the two, it's amazing what a caring person can do to help someone who seems lost to them.

We need to remember that someone who cannot talk is very vulnerable. She can't say what feels good or what she doesn't like. So, if you are using touch as a means to communicate, you need to be very tuned in to body language. The same goes for providing communication through hearing. Many times the two are connected. Watch the person's body language carefully to see what you should continue, or what you should change.

If you are providing any type of hands-on care for a person in this condition, speak soothingly and continuously, about what you are doing. Say things like, "I'm going to rub lotion on your arm now. Does that feel good?" or "I'm going to brush your hair now. It will really look nice."

If you are not providing necessary physical care, you can still do pleasant touch therapy, such as lotion or massage oil on the arms and legs, saying, "I'm putting some nice warm oil on your arm now. Does that feel good?" Just keep the talk soothing and the touch light. Make sure any ointment you use is warm, but not hot. Think of what you would like if the situation were reversed.

If you are mainly there to converse, or if your elder doesn't seem to like too much touching, honor that. Perhaps you could hold his hand while you talk about familiar things such as family or events he would remember with pleasure. Gently hold his hand and perhaps lightly place your other hand on top. The idea is to connect in a pleasurable way.

Music and Reading Help Caregivers Communicate With Mute Seniors

Listening to music, if it's the kind your elder likes, can be healing and powerful. I kept a CD player in my dad's room. He loved big band music. I kept him supplied with new CDs that were easy to find online. He loved the music on his better days. He even would "direct" the orchestra, much to the puzzlement of strangers walking by his room and loving amusement of the nursing home staff. On days when he couldn't respond, music would still play as he lay there. It seemed to help him relax.

Some people enjoy being read to. You could find your dad's favorite books and read chapter by chapter, depending on his level of enjoyment. If he loves the Bible, you could read his favorite verses. Whether or not he comprehends isn't all that important. Does he seem content? Maybe the sound of your voice is all that matters.

Contentment is what we are looking for here. Never forget how vulnerable this person is and that it is your responsibility to monitor the person's body language. Chances are you'll find that you have some memorable moments with your elder if you put your mind to it. Careful, light massage with a pleasing lotion or oil, holding a hand, reading, singing, playing music, praying aloud – all of these things will add quality to your visit. It definitely beats sitting there watching the clock and wondering if you are just wasting your time with the visit.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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11 Comments

I read a book called, "Talking To Alzheimer's" sorry, don't remeber the author. It addressed ways to alter usual communications patterns that we have come to accept as "proper or polite" which are not appropriate for persons in various stages of Alz. I was able to help my nieces and nephews understand Gram's inability to follow conversations and answer questions. It was very helpful learning how to effectively word statements rather than ask questions.
my issue is my sister can no longer talk on the phone ...Parkinsons...I cant understand her...we text but is there any other way to communcate. we live states away . I visit as often as I can, but I miss our talks so badly.
Update: my Father passed peacefully on 11/27. My husband , daughter and I took him out to dinner in Thanksgiving. It was his last meal. What better meal than a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole.