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Tips on How to Communicate When Your Loved One No Longer Can

January 21st, 2014 · 14 Comments

This winter we noticed that Dad was no long able or willing to talk very much. I’m not sure when it happened, but in a matter of months we found ourselves struggling to talk to him during our visits to his nursing home. We are not sure why he stopped talking, although we know he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s type dementia. What we don’t want to do is just sit there looking at one another without feeling that we connected in some way when we visit.

My daughter is the main person who can communicate with Dad. She is an R.N. and has experience and training in how to communicate with the elderly so we let her take charge of the conversation. Plus she has a great, outgoing personality. Here are a few ideas from our experience that may be helpful to you.

Talk to your loved one.

When a loved one is hard of hearing and struggling with dementia, it is very difficult to communicate with them, but that’s what they need. We raise our voice to the extent that we need to for Dad to hear us, and we also repeat simple phrases to try to get our question answered or share our news. We have learned that we need to ask his permission to feed him or comb his hair. It can be jarring for someone to reach up and start combing someone’s hair without warning them.

Feed your loved one if they need help.

Barb has recently found that she enjoys feeding Dad. We time our visit so that we can take him to a private sitting room and she feeds him his meal. He can still feed himself to some extent, but eats more when she feeds him. It also gives her a greater opportunity to touch and talk to him during the process.

Barb is good at using humor to prompt reactions from Dad. We had been visiting for about thirty to forty-five minutes when he indicated he wanted to take a nap. She asked him if he was tired of us, and he smiled and nodded his head. She joked with him about wanting to get rid of us and he just smiled. Then she asked if we could come back next week and he smiled and nodded his head.

Prompts help keep the conversation going.

We also found it was much easier to communicate with him during the holidays when we were receiving quite a few greeting cards. The other day Barb looked at me after we had been with Dad about ten or twenty minutes, and she said, “It was a lot easier when we had cards to share. I’m running out of things to talk to him about.” Trying to carry on a conversation with someone who no longer talks very much is difficult. We need props to help us keep up any type of communication.

Touch your loved one as often as possible – if they will allow you to.

While you don’t want to force yourself on someone if they are not willing, most seniors long for a touch from their loved ones. Barb not only holds his hand, but she also softly rubs it at times and he smiles at her. She asks if that feels good and he will nod and she is rewarded with another smile. Unfortunately, I am not a touchy/feely kind of person and I tend to hold back. Thankfully, there are others who step up to the plate.

He reaches out to touch our hands when we first arrive and when we are saying goodbye. He especially enjoys touching his great-grandson who is six years old. Dad seems aware enough that he knows a special person that he wants to stay in contact with.

Share family news.

Although he doesn’t seem as interested in what is going on with other family members or personal friends of his, we still mention their names and let him know if they called to ask about him or if they have news we can share. I’m not sure why he has lost interest, but that is one area that he seems to hear and receive the news, and then quickly turns away as if he doesn’t care. That was a surprise to us, but we still keep mentioning them each time we visit in case he does want to know.

With dementia, we never know what his reaction will be at any given time, so we just keep plodding along to see what he will accept or not accept. When you visit your loved one, watch for clues that will help you better communicate with them. If you sense they don’t want or need you to share certain news or touch them in some way, such as holding their hand, don’t try to force it. They may change their mind at a later time.

This is not a definitive list. You can probably come up with your own ways to communicate such as reading to them or listening to music together. For most elderly people, just the fact that you are willing to visit them for a few minutes brightens their day.



Tags: Conditions and Diseases · Dementia and Alzheimer's · Elder Care

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14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Misty Spears // Jan 21, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Thank you for sharing these ideas. I haven’t had any first hand experience with that as of yet but it’s good to know we have resources like this available to us.

  • 2 Stav // Jan 21, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    All great advice.

    The Visiting Nurse Service of New York has a similar article with advice on communicating with your loved one. How to Help Improve Your Loved One’s Ability to Communicate http://www.vnsny.org/caregivers/caregiving-indepth/how-to-help-improve-your-loved-ones-ability-to-communicate/

    Thanks for posting!


  • 3 Lynda Lippin // Jan 21, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    My parents both had dementia. Mom went first and was incoherent for a few years before she died. Dad was slower and shorter lived. We would still talk, touch, visit.

  • 4 Bonnie Gean // Jan 21, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a parent with dementia; it must be very hard when you want to talk and the conversation is limited.

    I’m sure he appreciates you being there, even if he can’t tell you that in so many words. You’ll appreciate the time you did spend with him, so keep it up!

  • 5 Salma // Jan 22, 2014 at 1:24 am

    My parents are getting older. I’m lucky that they haven’t reached this stage yet, but these are good tips to keep in mind for the future.

  • 6 Tamsin // Jan 22, 2014 at 3:09 am

    These are challenges that you don’t think of. I guess as much as you can keep conversation going in an area of their interest it helps. Reading sounds like a good option.

  • 7 Jen // Jan 22, 2014 at 10:26 am

    I have to tell you this post brought a tear to my eye. I had an in law who suffered from dementia and it pained me to see that the family didn’t do much to engage him once he stopped talking. Your Dad is very lucky to have such a caring family, and you should be commended for doing all you can to maintain a great relationship with him instead of abandoning him because he’s not giving you what you need from him. Thanks for sharing this article – maybe another family that is unsure what to do will read this and do the right thing.

  • 8 Edie // Jan 29, 2014 at 9:13 am

    Thank you, Misty. Unfortunately, it happens to most of us sooner or later.

  • 9 Edie // Jan 29, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Stav, thanks for sharing the link. I hadn’t seen that as yet. Appreciate the info.

  • 10 Edie // Jan 29, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Mom had dementia and now Dad has Alz. We have all tried to keep in touch with them as much as possible. My daughter is good at communicating with my Dad, thankfully. Thanks for stopping by.

  • 11 Edie // Jan 29, 2014 at 9:17 am

    We went through this first with my mother who had TIA dementia from mini strokes, and now Dad. He is able to communicate with nodding his head or even some facial expressions as well as a few words. Somehow we make it work.

  • 12 Edie // Jan 29, 2014 at 9:18 am

    Salma, fortunately as more information is now available it’s easier to find out how to communicate. Thanks for stopping by.

  • 13 Edie // Jan 29, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Dad enjoys looking at photos and greeting cards as well. We do anything we can to communicate and most of the time it helps.

  • 14 Edie // Jan 29, 2014 at 9:22 am

    Wow, Jen. So sorry relatives gave up on him. They missed a great opportunity to help stave loneliness and keep in touch with him. Hopefully, tips like this will help people out.

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