Communication & Dignity

My aunt has a rare condition that has left her with many physical disabilities, including making it very difficult for her to communicate. Throughout the years, caregivers have struggled to understand what she is saying. Only the most patient people are willing to sit and listen to her repeat portions of a phrase until she is able to get the rest of her thought out. Even after hearing the whole phrase, it can still be difficult to interpret what she has said. As caregivers spend more time with her, those who are willing to put in effort to listen to her become good at understanding what she is trying to communicate. However, in many cases, caregivers feel they don't have enough time to sit and listen.

About a year ago, a group of students reached out to the care facility where my aunt lived to see if they could do a student project to help a patient who struggled to communicate. They worked closely with my aunt and family to learn about her struggles and what would help her. In return, they created an app for a tablet that they attached to her wheelchair. Now when my aunt needs something, she can press a button that says the words that she is trying to communicate, such as "I would like to have my teeth brushed," "I need to use the bathroom," "I would like to eat pasta," and so on.

While providing a tablet with an app on it for all those who struggle to communication may not be an option, it is possible to find ways to improve communication so people can still make decisions for themselves. For instance, having pictures or words people can point to, asking yes or no questions, encouraging hand gestures such as thumbs up or thumbs down, and watching for body language queues are all ways to provide people with opportunities to express their needs and desires.

Here are some tips from the United Kingdom's Stroke Association that can also be used when communicating with others:

  • Keep your sentences short and simple. Ask one question at a time.

  • Say when you don't understand. Don't worry if you make a mistake in understanding. Keep trying.

  • Talk about one topic at a time.

  • Use whatever you can to help with communication: point to things, make gestures, write, draw, hum, or sing.

  • Talk naturally about things you are both interested in.

  • Listen.

  • Try not to interrupt.

  • Allow silences.

  • Ask questions.

  • Check to make sure you have understood. Don't pretend you understand if you don't.

By allowing people to communicate their thoughts, needs, and wants, it gives individuals a greater sense of their dignity in care.