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Connect Beyond Words

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

Blog Post by Oran Aviv

Last week, I wrote a blog post called "Beyond Words" in which I discussed the possibility of connecting with non-verbal individuals with dementia and emphasized the importance of understanding that even if a person is unable to recognize your name or who you are, they still sense your significance to them.

This week, I want to share some strategies for building deeper connections with older individuals who have difficulty speaking.

Soul Touching Soul

Naomi Feil developed the Validation Method to be able to reach and communicate with older people who have memory loss.

Once a month, Michael Verde from the organization Memory Bridge, has an on-line

Q&A session with Naomi Feil, now 90, who shares her 60 years of knowledge and insights about communicating with older people who have cognitive impairment.

Last week Naomi and Michael discussed Naomi’s use of the word “soul” when she explains how she connects with older people who have cognitive decline.

Naomi explained that she believes we each have a soul which is an energy that connects to other souls. Through Validation, we open our own soul to the soul of the older person:

"The soul is the inner knowing of every human being that can connect with another human being regardless of cognitive status."

Naomi continued to explain that cognitive, logical thinking detracts from the open expression of the soul.

"It’s easier if the other human being does not think cognitively because then they are thinking intuitively and it’s more open."

Wow! What a beautiful way to appreciate someone who may be cognitively impaired, but is more open and intuitive.

This session was so inspiring. Naomi shared the joy one experiences when they are able connect to an older person on a non-cognitive level and how it can be life-changing for the carer:

It’s like being an explorer and if the carer is curious, “Hey, where is this person going, and what is this reality like, and how does it feel?’ That will add a dimension to the cognitive awareness of the carer after a while. It will be part of their being.

Listening to Naomi Feil speak about her passion for working with individuals with cognitive impairment and the enrichment it brings to her own life is a refreshing perspective, contrasting with common misconceptions about individuals living with dementia.

It highlights the potential for a much-needed shift in mindset.

I strongly suggest signing up for the Q&A sessions with Naomi Feil and supporting Memory Bridge by making donation of $5 or more. This non-profit organization is at the forefront of changing the way we approach and care for individuals living with memory loss.

Sole Touches Soul

I often used this phrase to describe how reflexology can connect at a deeper, non-verbal level. Sole of course is from sole of the foot since reflexology is best known for working the reflex points on the feet.

As a Reflexology Therapist with 25 years of experience, I have witnessed the benefits of reflexology for individuals struggling with depression. I have seen firsthand how reflexology can bring relief to clients and have received feedback such as "You brought life back into my body and soul just with your touch."

Reflexology can be a powerful tool for connecting with people on a deeper level through touch and by working on reflex points. When someone is in a state of confusion or depression Reflexology creates a sense of connection and safety, sending a lifeline for the person to find their way back.

When I work with individuals who are living with dementia, I have also witnessed this same connection using Hand Reflexology. In addition to the importance of physical touch, Reflexology creates a deeper connection and helps the person feel safe and cared for.

Speak Slowly

For someone who is living with dementia, it can take much longer to process information and even more time to generate an answer, so it is important to be patient and not rush them.

In a previous blog post “Understanding Dementia,” I wrote about Wendy Mitchel who was diagnosed with Young-onset Dementia (Alzheimer’s type) at the age of 58 and how she has learned to live on her own by "outwitting dementia."

Wendy describes in her first book “Somebody I Used to Know” how difficult it is for her to talk to people, especially on the phone when she can’t see them. She refers to people on the phone as “faceless voices”:

"The phone with faceless voices has become the enemy.

When you speak to someone who has dementia on the phone, you are not able to see their facial cues, so you do not know if the person has processed what you have said."

It is crucial to remember to maintain eye contact when communicating with older individuals who have difficulty speaking, as it allows them to read your facial expressions and gain additional cues to understand what you are saying.

It is also important to speak clearly and slowly and to limit talking about only one subject at a time. It’s much easier to understand, process and answer this question:

“Do you want a cup of coffee?”

than to understand:

“Do you want a cup of coffee before we go out or would you rather first take a shower and get dressed and then we can go shopping and have coffee at that little coffee shop we always used to go to with Jennifer and Richard before they moved away to be with their daughter in Paris?”

I think you get the idea. 😁 When communicating with older people who have difficulty speaking, it's important to speak slowly and clearly, maintain eye contact and make sure each sentence or question is easy to comprehend. You may find that individuals who were previously thought to be non-responsive begin to react when spoken to in this manner.

Try Silence Sometimes, the reason why someone is non-verbal may be quite simple. A few months ago, I met a new visitor at our Adult Day Care Center who did not communicate well. The staff assumed he did not understand the activities and suggested he go to a different room with less verbal individuals. I took this gentleman to a quiet room to talk and I was surprised to find that he was not only verbal, but also bright and witty. All he needed was time to organize his thoughts in order to answer. Often, when someone is slow to respond, we try to fill the silence with chatter or finish their thoughts for them. This is especially disrespectful for those living with dementia who may need more time to register and respond.

It's not always easy to wait and keep our mouth shut, but embracing silence may allow individuals the space and time they need to communicate.

Use Ambiguity

People with more advanced dementia may have difficulty remembering specific words or names, and may sometimes substitute them with other words.

One of Naomi Feil’s Validation techniques that we use in this type of situation, is to not concentrate on a certain word or words we don’t understand, but to use vague pronouns to try to make sense of what the person is saying.

Naomi calls this technique ambiguity and we can use pronouns such as:

he, she, it, that, they, to fill in the missing or invented words.

If you are centered, you don’t need to know the meaning of every word to be able to understand what the person is trying to say.

For example, if someone tells me

"The Flampols don’t work! "

Rather than ask what Flampols are, I can ask open questions with a vague pronoun:

What happened to them?

Who can fix them?

In this way I can continue the conversation and the person very often will feel more relaxed because they are being listened to and understood. When stress is reduced the person very often may become more verbal too. A few months ago I had this conversation with a visitor at our Adult Day Care Center.

Me: “Hi Mrs. R. How are you today?”

Mrs. R; “Terrible”

Me: “Terrible. Oh no, what happened?”

Mrs. R “The Garanflors didn’t come”

Me: “They didn’t come?”

Mrs. R: “No”

Me: Does that make you sad that they didn’t come?”

Mrs R: “Yes”

Me: “Have they come before?”

Mrs. R: smiles and says, “Oh yes”

I have no idea what Mrs. R’s Garanflors were, but you could see in her smile and faraway look, that they had transported her to a very fond memory. Sadly, this was my last conversation with Mrs. R. because she passed away a few days later. I am so grateful that her Garanflors brought her some good memories that day. There are many ways we connect with another person without using depending just on words and it may even allow us to connect at a deeper level.


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