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Learning a new way of talking - without words

oneillBy Rich O‘Neill, PhD

My mom is 97, has Alzheimer‘s and has become less verbal and logical. She now lives in a residential health care facility, a nursing home. This has been a hard journey for her, and for me.

One of the most difficult things has been being with her when her words are nonsense. She starts a sentence with three or four words and then says unrelated words. What does she mean? What can I say back? For a long time I got frustrated, sad, even desperate.

But I‘ve discovered that we can converse and both feel good if I just let go of her words, tune in to her emotional message, and respond from there.

I had to let go of my idea that as a grown woman she should talk sensibly and understand me, too.

Attuning emotionally now, I‘m surprised that once in a while she listens to my emotion and responds to me there. For example, last week we were lunching. Now, she eats extremely slowly, almost one grain of rice at a time. I was getting antsy because of other obligations but hadn‘t said anything. Somehow she knew and said “Do you have to go home to your family now?”


The other day I went over for lunch. She was at her table. I was expecting her usual greeting for me, which I call her “whole body smile.” This is when she lights up, looks right in my eyes, beams a smile, coos “Oh! Oh! You! You‘re here! So good!” and stretches out her arms. And I smile back and hug and kiss her. “Hi Sweetie. Nice to see you.”

But this day she was slumped, eyes closed, not eating the lunch in front of her even though eating is one thing she still enjoys. I thought she might be sleeping. So I gently said “Hi sweetie,” and patted her shoulder. No response. I rubbed her back, gave her some kisses, made sure her hearing aid was on and said more soothing words. Her eyes remained shut, her body slumped.

I found her nurse‘s aid, who told me she had to be a bit forceful cleaning her in the bathroom, and right after that experience Mom had gone into this whole body frown, possibly angry but who knows? I went back to her again, but she still did not respond, so I said goodbye and headed for the door. Before I could leave, the aide caught me: “She‘s looking for you now.”

I returned to find those loving eyes and gentle smile. With soothing tones and kisses and love pats, we shared a very pleasant meal.

Who knows when we share our last one. I‘m careful not to exhaust myself, to both care for myself and do the best I can caring for Mom, hoping our kids and theirs and theirs, will learn this talking without words.

croppedhloaPsychologist Rich O‘Neill, PhD, shares “Check Up From the Neck Up” on Upstate‘s weekly talk radio program, HealthLink on Air. Listen to the show from 9 to 10 p.m. Sunday on WRVO Public Media or anytime at www.upstate.edu/healthlinkonair