How to Communicate With Non-Verbal Senior Loved Ones

Being able to speak to loved ones is one of the foundations of a relationship. So what do you do when your parents or senior loved ones are no longer verbal?How to Communicate With Non-Verbal Senior Loved Ones

Learn more about how to communicate with non-verbal senior loved ones using these three research-based tips for continuing to enjoy your time together.

3 Steps to Take to Communicate With Non-Verbal Senior Loved Ones

There are two forms of communication: expressive and receptive:

  • Expressive communication is being able to use sentences or words to express yourself
  • Receptive communication is the ability to understand what is being shown to you and is still present after we lose the ability to express ourselves through words

If your parents or senior loved ones are suffering from late-stage dementia, have had a stroke or are in the end stages of life, they may lose their ability to offer expressive communication.

Here are three tips on how you can continue to enjoy your time together and show love to your non-verbal senior loved ones during this time:

1. Focus on the senses.

Your non-verbal senior loved ones experience the world mainly through the five senses. Think about how you can show your love through what they feel, hear, see, smell and taste.

Here are some practical examples to appeal to the senses:


Food can appeal to all senses. The smell of food being prepared is very comforting. Your loved ones may only eat a bite or two or may just want to see the food. Sit with them during mealtimes and make the experience enjoyable. It is more about being together than eating.

Movies and Sports

You can choose a movie or sports event that your loved ones previously enjoyed. They may only be able to watch for 10 minutes, but even that short time can provide a meaningful connection.


Music is uniquely capable of stirring our emotions. Listen to a favorite song together. Play an instrument or sing a song for your loved ones that you remember them singing to you.

Read Aloud

Read a favorite book with your loved ones. Children’s books or a well-loved novel will do. It is not so much the words as it is your presence and tone that is comforting.

Relive Memories

Talk to your loved ones about your memories together. Look at family videos or old photos. Even if your loved ones are not aware of who you are or are unable to respond, you may be encouraged by remembering your life together.

Show Affection

It can feel awkward to hug or kiss your loved ones when they are non-responsive. Use whatever opportunities are there to use a gentle touch to show love.

Talk About Your Love

Regardless of whether your loved ones can respond, your words of love can be soothing. Talk about what you have appreciated about your loved ones. Tell them about how important they are to you. Thank your loved ones for being in your life.

2. Let go of the expectation for a response.

Being able to enjoy your interactions with your non-verbal senior loved ones will depend on what you expect from them. As they lose the ability to express themselves, the responsibility for communication will lie with you.

A study from the University of Iowa shows that even when a person does not remember something that happens, they will continue to be affected by the emotion. Research shows that loved ones experience a lasting impact from how they felt when you were there.

It may help to think of your role as similar to a caregiver or parent to a brand-new baby. You hold a baby, feed her and look into her eyes smiling softly. All without expecting her to answer you or understand what you are doing. You won’t receive a verbal answer, but you still feel love and connected by being with the person you love.

3. Pay attention to the “Five Love Languages.”

Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a book in 1992 called “The Five Love Languages.” The focus of the book is that we each have a specific way that we give and understand love best. The five styles of giving love are:

  • Giving gifts
  • Providing care and service
  • Spending time together
  • Touch and physical affection
  • Using words of affirmation, appreciation, kindness and love

Think back on your relationship with your loved ones. How did they show you that you were loved? How they showed you love will give you clues for how you can show them love in return.

Even when your loved ones lose the ability to talk with you, you can still communicate. Love is more than words. Keeping this in mind can help as you navigate your relationship with non-verbal senior loved ones.

In what ways have you communicated with and shown love to your non-verbal senior loved ones? We’d like to hear your story in the comments below.

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