How to Communicate with Someone who Canít Speak Print E-mail

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Communicating with someone who can no longer speak in words or sentences can sometimes seem like a tough task.

The good news
People with dementia still do communicate, even if they can no longer use words or sentences. Today we know that most people with dementia retain the ability to communicate, at least in one-syllable words, such as Yes or No.

The only exceptions to this rule are people in the final stage of dementia or who have suffered a stroke or similar condition that may have affected their ‘speech circuitry’.

A Yes or No answer can be given in 3 different ways by:

  1. Saying the words out loud.
  2. Shaking or nodding the head to indicate a response.
  3. Using facial expressions e.g. looking up and making eye contact; smiling or looking down for a Yes, or: looking straight into space or giving no reaction at all for a No.
Research has shown that words are not our only means of communication. We use three components when communicating a message:

  1. Words – which make up 7%
  2. Tone of voice – which makes up 38% and
  3. Body language – which makes up 55%
This means that 93% of our communication is non-verbal, and it is in our tone of voice and body language that meaning is conveyed. We can say a word or sentence, but give it a completely opposite meaning through our tone of voice and the look on our face. The reality is that people with dementia who have ‘lost’ their speech (only 7% of their communication) still retain the ability to share all their emotions by communicating non-verbally in actions and sounds.

Be a good listener
The objective of communicating with someone who can’t put words or sentences together is to help the person make sense of what is going on inside his or her mind and to express it.

The first essential to being a good listener is to listen with your heart, to listen with feeling. Ask yourself:

  • What is the person attempting to communicate?
  • What is the need that is not fulfilled?

Use your intuition as a guide to help you guess what the person is attempting to communicate.

Intuition is our lightning fast ability to take in information and process it in relation to anything we have learned previously or experienced. It gives us our initial response to a question. To do this incredibly fast processing, our intuition makes use of both hemispheres of the brain.

Once we have guessed what the person is attempting to communicate, we need to acknowledge the need or feeling that is being expressed, then check this ‘guessed’ need or feeling with the person.

Contrary to myths… people with dementia do know how they feel and what their needs are. They simply express them differently and it is our obligation to tune into their special way of sharing their needs and feelings.

Here’s to great communicating!

Further reading – Click topic
  • How to Communicate with Someone who Can’t Speak – Members Article – Jane Verity (Learn 4 body language techniques to show people with dementia that you are really listening; learn the importance and the difference between intuition and logical, rational thinking and which is most effective in communicating with people who have dementia; learn strategies and effective questions to uncover unmet needs and to draw out the person’s feelings and needs; learn question techniques to check on your guesses and 6 steps to being a good communicator.)
  • Understanding Symbolic Language – Précis/Members article – Jane Verity (Discover the fascinating and revealing language of spoken and gestured symbols; read a true account of how the principles of the 7 Step Symbol Solver revealed the meaning behind previously mystifying behaviour. Learn a mirroring technique to elicit meanings behind behaviours and gestures. Read advice to avoid overlooking the obvious; 5 tips for Best Attitude and learn about universal symbols and their meanings.)
  • The Bus Stop Band-aid – Précis/Members article – Jane Verity (Discover the emotions and reasons behind the words, I want to go home; learn positive ways to fulfil unmet needs and proven strategies to remove the necessity for the bus stop and other band-aid solutions. Also, learn why “Best” is the Enemy of Greatness.)
  • Hugs not Drugs – Members short article – Jane Verity (Discover 3 factors behind attention-seeking behaviour, the 5 secrets to “great” hugs and 5 hints to check if a hug is creating discomfort in another person plus a wonderful non-threatening excuse for exchanging a big hug.)

Relevant Resources:
How to Truly Understand People with Dementia – Manual - Jane Verity – Visit our Online Store
How to Communicate with a Person who can’t Speak – A3 poster – Visit our Online Store
10 Tips for Best Communication – A3 poster – Visit our Online Store
5 Universal Emotional Needs – A3 poster – Visit our Online Store
Hug Heart Balloons – small, red heart shaped balloons to exchange for hugs – Visit our Online Store
Nonviolent Communication – book – Marshall B. Rosenberg Ph.D. – Visit our Online Store




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