How to Communicate with a Senior Who Can’t Speak
Communication problems can become more common with age. Some seniors experience communication difficulty because of impaired hearing, neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, or the effects of brain injuries such as a stroke. In some extreme cases, older adults may even lose the ability to speak entirely.
Understandably, communication obstacles can be frustrating for caregivers and visitors as well as your elderly loved one. When you learn to effectively connect with a senior who has a communication impairment, you can reduce frustration and bring back the joy of being together and enjoying one another’s company.
What Causes Communication Problems in Seniors?
Although answering someone’s greeting or question seems like an effortless process, your brain has to perform some steps before you can respond:
- First, you have to hear, remember, and understand the words.
- Next, you have to consider a reply, find the words, and form them into a sentence.
- Finally, you have to tell your muscles how to move and then speak the sentence.
An impediment to one or more of these steps can cause speech problems or take away a person’s ability to speak altogether. Many conditions can cause these impediments. Two of the most common include:
- Aphasia: a condition characterized by the inability to understand language or put a sentence together because of brain damage.
- Dysarthria: a condition characterized by slurred or difficult-to-comprehend speech because of impaired control over the muscles used to talk.
Both of these conditions are common after a stroke and add to the challenge of caring for a senior who has had a stroke.
Five Strategies for More Effective Communication
Although speech problems in elderly adults can make communicating difficult, some of the following strategies can improve the process:
- Respect is the most important part of interacting with seniors who have speech impairments or cannot speak. Keep talking to your loved one and don’t make them feel excluded from conversations happening around them. While it may be frustrating to feel like you’re talking at someone rather than with someone, don’t let your frustrations take over your time with your loved one. Because seniors with speech problems are vulnerable, it is also very important to recognize the signs of elder abuse.
- Practice may restore some seniors’ ability to communicate over time. Speak with your loved one continuously and allow them to practice speaking on their own, too. Provide support when needed but avoid speaking for them or finishing their sentences. Also, consider asking your loved one’s doctor if speech and language therapy is needed. If so, go along with them to appointments and learn from the therapist how you can best help.
- Patience is crucial for communicating with seniors who have speech problems. Make sure you stick to one topic at a time, and both of you are on the same page. Confirm your loved one means “yes” or “no” with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down gesture. If you have to change the conversation topic, let them know you’re going to start talking about something else and wait until they acknowledge before switching topics. And always take time to listen to what your loved one is saying.
- Touch can be a very powerful way of letting a senior know that you're there and you love them. While it can be difficult to have a one-sided conversation with a loved one, talking to them while brushing their hair, applying lotion, or simply holding hands can make the interaction feel more natural. Always let your loved one know you’re going to touch them and do so gently without sudden movement. Also, pay close attention to their body language: if your loved one pulls away or draws back, it’s probably best to refrain from physical contact.
- Music is another great way to convey emotion. Consider what tunes your loved one enjoys listening to and play those songs for them. Don’t be afraid to sing along or be a little silly and dance. Show your loved one you enjoy being together by playing uplifting music.
Relearning how to communicate with a senior loved one after they develop a communication problem can be difficult, but following these strategies can make your relationship just as fulfilling as it was before.