The use of spoken language is so uniquely human that we are lost when trying to communicate with someone who cannot speak. We forget that for the first years of our lives, we had no language and yet we communicated quite well with those who took the time to learn our personal language. Their responsiveness and their modeling of speech brought us all the gift of language. But once we learn to talk, we often forget there was ever any other way to connect.

Brain Pathways can be interrupted

Language is controlled in a center in the brain, usually on the dominant side, and can be damaged by injury, disease, or aging. Language is not just the mechanics of speech. It includes the processing of information and the transformation of thoughts into words. Alzheimer’s Disease and strokes are probably the most common thieves of language in the elderly, but injury at any age can affect verbal communication.

As the holidays approach, we are more likely to encounter those family members struggling with speech. Their loss of skill can be hard to accept but need not be a barrier that separates them from the rest of the family. There are a number of ways we can make communication easier for them.

Automatic language

“Grandma, you look fantastic!” or “How’s my favorite Uncle Pete?” Said with a smile, a hug, and no expectation of a verbal answer, these automatic greetings may trigger automatic responses. Or not. Don’t let the lack of response affect your attitude.

Don’t speak for them

Someone struggling for words will become more frustrated and less able to speak if you try to guess for them and focus on what they aren’t saying. If you don’t understand them, or they can’t get the words out, give them a hug and let them know, “We’ll try this again pretty soon.” Then observe and get used to whatever speech they can manage and adjust your approach accordingly.

Example: I had a stroke patient who was obviously upset about something. The harder he tried to tell me, the louder and more profane he became. I knew he didn’t mean to swear at me; it was just the only words that would come out. I finally told him we had to get some work done and we’d figure it out later. When I moved his paralyzed arm, he suddenly grimaced in pain. I immediately backed off and asked him if that’s what he was trying to tell me. Relief flooded his face. He didn’t have to say a word.

Don’t expect direct answers

Don’t ask questions requiring direct answers. Ask rhetorical questions; let the person respond if he can, and move on if he can’t.

Example: My truck-driving brother-in-law was in a nursing home after a severe stroke. Our family went to visit him and his only response to their questions was great heaving sobs. Just as my patient could manage only swear words, Dean’s only response was crying. Uncomfortable talking to him, the rest of the extended family moved across the room to visit among themselves and I sat down with Dean. I began telling him about our cross-country trip. “Ya know that long hill on 80 when you’re coming down from Nevada…” Blah blah blah. He chuckled appreciatively, nodded his head at the right times, and we “chatted” for quite a while. I did all the talking, but he responded appropriately without having to say a word.

Love can find a way

If all the words are gone—and with them most of the memories—remember that the person most likely loved you before you had words of your own. Now it’s your turn to love them the same way.


Today’s guest blogger − and Connection Messenger − is Esther Miller, a Shenandoah Valley neighbor and fellow amateur radio operator (KK6AD). Born and raised in the Midwest, Esther lived in California for over 30 years before moving to the Shenandoah Valley over 10 years ago with her husband, Larry.  “I was an Occupational Therapist when I wasn’t being a fulltime homemaker and mother, working with children who had learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and autism.”  She also lived with a brain-damaged father whose language was impaired. 

Esther has been a Virginia Master Gardener for over ten years. She has traveled all over the United States and brings a wealth of experience to her writing. She invites you to follow her through her blog “At Home…On the Road.” Besides gardening, Esther is interested in genealogy. She has two children and two grandchildren.


Photo credit 1: “Old Man Lost in Thought” by Yuri Archurs via BigStockPhoto
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