5 Practical Suggestions for Caring for a Loved One Who Can’t Communicate

by Heather Larson, LSW, CT

Caregiving for a loved one comes with its own set of rewards and challenges. When your loved one is unable to speak, the situation can become more complicated. Witnessing your loved one lose their ability to speak takes a toll, not only on the individual, but also the caregivers. It can feel like a helpless time, but there are practical ways to help make the time with your loved one meaningful while also allowing you to feel more confident in meeting his or her needs.

At Hospice of the Red River Valley we provide care and support to people from all different backgrounds, life experiences and medical conditions. Here are some of the ways I’ve learned through our work that you can continue to connect with your loved one who is no longer able to speak.

1. Read Non-verbal Cues

When someone we care for is unable to speak, reading their non-verbal cues becomes particularly important. This is especially true when assessing for pain in someone who can’t tell us about their discomfort.

If your loved one is in pain, he or she may “act out.” As a caregiver, this is your cue; there is almost always an explanation for this behavior whether it is out of frustration, discomfort or another cause.

Through investigation and trial and error with your loved one, you can often discover an underlying cause for a particular reaction, which can help lead to a resolution or at least a decrease in these physical reactions.

  • Pay close attention to facial expressions and body language.
  • Are they relaxed or tense, and what does their posture look like? For example, is their jaw clenched? Their hands clenched?
  • Are they visibly agitated, or do they strike out?

2. Presence Speaks Loudest

The gift of presence often speaks loudest of all. If your loved one is no longer able to talk, it can be very difficult to know how to spend time with that person, especially as you grieve these changes. However, whether someone is able to communicate or not, it doesn’t change the fact that they need physical and emotional connection, just as any of us do.

Being comfortable with silence doesn’t come naturally to most of us, but it can become easier with a little time and patience. Once you realize this, the constant burden and stress of worrying about what to say or do can be lifted, allowing you to focus simply on just being together.

As you learn to simply be present, physical touch can become a powerful tool in communicating with your loved one. Continue to hug, hold hands or offer to lightly massage your loved ones feet or hands.

3. Incorporate Activities

The inability to speak does not mean you cannot enjoy activities with your loved one. You may have to become creative in adapting these activities to his/her current abilities or it may be as simple as reminiscing and sharing memories of these activities with your loved one, all while creating new memories as you do so.

Other simple and often enjoyable activities you can share with your loved one include:

  • Listening to their favorite music
  • Reading aloud
  • Looking at family pictures
  • Sitting with the person and holding his or her hand

4. Continue to Talk to Your Loved One

It can be easy to assume a loved one who can’t verbally communicate does not hear, understand or that they comprehend at a lower level than they actually do.

When hospice patients are nearing end of life and are non-responsive, we encourage family members to hold their hand and talk to them. Hearing is the first sense we develop in life, and it is the last sense to go. It can be comforting to your loved to hear your voice and reassurance.

If you are unsure what your loved one can comprehend, your family doctor or a provider who specializes in this area can be a great resource. They have the expertise and tools available to determine and educate families regarding the level of comprehension their loved one has—making it easier to know how to communicate with them.

When it comes to providing physical care for a loved one, it is always important to clearly communicate what will take place with your loved one prior to starting the care and as you transition from one task to the next. None of us like to be rushed so allowing for adequate time for these cares while continuing to observe their non-verbal cues is essential.

5. Simplify

When it comes to caring for our elderly loved ones who can no longer speak, simplify your communication. Break things into easy-to-understand language while also preserving the person’s dignity and respect.

There may be times when you find yourself questioning whether you should go visit a loved because they can’t share in conversation with you. It’s important to understand there is significant evidence that confirms people greatly benefit from human interaction and connection with a loved one or caregiver, regardless of their ability to communicate.

If spending this time is uncomfortable for you, seek support from knowledgeable health care professionals. The more time you’re able to spend with your loved one practicing some of these suggestions, the easier and more natural it will become. We may go with the intention of blessing another, and in return, find they are the one blessing us.

Heather Larson, LSW, CT, is a grief specialist with Hospice of the Red River Valley.

About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or hrrv.org.


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