40: A Good Conversation

40: A Good Conversation

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

A Good Conversation

The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.

~Peter F. Drucker

Words were the first thing to go. Mom covered it up well, though. As I visited one Saturday, she dragged me into her bedroom and opened the closet door. Smiling, she showed me an outfit she had recently purchased: black slacks and a matching black and red top.

“We went shopping yesterday at… you know, that store where we like to shop.” The name of the store had vanished, and I didn’t know which store she meant, but it didn’t matter. Even without the name, Mom managed to communicate.

After many years with vascular dementia, she spoke less and less. As she lost more and more words, communication became difficult. My once outgoing and social mother struggled to converse. “Baby… heart… store… pretty…” Words that once were strung together to communicate her thoughts now bounced around like a broken strand of pearls.

One day at a family dinner I had a revelation that helped me communicate with Mom. The dinner table at Mom and Dad’s house was crowded with children and grandchildren. As dishes were passed and silverware clinked, conversation flowed and laughter erupted. Stories were shared and family members poked good-natured fun at one another.

That’s when I noticed. I looked at Mom, who couldn’t join in the conversation. Her mouth was set in a stern line and her eyes flashed. She didn’t say a word, but I knew she was angry.

When it dawned on me why, I was ashamed. Even though Mom no longer had the ability to carry on a conversation, she still wanted to be included. Because she wasn’t talking, we had ignored her. During that entire meal, I hadn’t made eye contact with her, nor had anyone else at the table. We had treated her as if she didn’t exist.

I couldn’t do anything to help Mom regain her ability to use words, but I could include her and communicate with her. I looked into her baby blue eyes, smiled, and nodded my head. Immediately the stern mouth turned upward into a smile. Together, we learned to communicate. She uttered a string of words, “See… car… Mom… walk… boy . . .” and I responded as if I knew what she was saying.

For a year or two after that, Mom and I had some wonderful conversations. Making eye contact, I smiled at her. I nodded, as if I understood her disjointed words. Gesturing with my hands, I answered her, “Oh, that’s funny,” and laughed out loud. “Tell me more,” I said, and listened attentively to random words that made no sense.

Yes, Mom had lost the ability to convey meaning with her words. But I learned an important truth: We didn’t need coherent sentences to communicate, because the language of love doesn’t need words.

~Nancy Hamilton Sturm

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