Interacting with non-verbal patients as a hospice social worker

Now that we’ve discussed how to respond when people don’t stop talking, I thought it’s a good time to discuss caring for those who don’t speak at all.

One of the very challenging experiences in hospice social work is interacting with nonverbal patients. It can stir in us many comfortable emotions, including sorrow, shame, and doubt, and leave us wondering how important it is to spend time with patients whose communication is so limited.

The time we contribute to all of our patients is valuable, especially when we allow ourselves to just be present with them.

Intentional togetherness is a special gift to give

It is always a special occasion when people get together for the sole purpose of being together. “For the sole purpose of being together” doesn’t describe every social interaction we experience: usually there are other motivations. Friends get together to watch a game, play a game, watch a movie, far more often than they say, “Let’s spend some time being present with each other.” Even married couples, who are not as in love as they used to be, may consider some of their interactions as investments they hope will yield rewards, such as domestic stability or more affirming behavior from the other.

We experience this special occasion more when we reunite. A friend or family member is visiting from out of town, and we are not shy about wanting to simply spend time in each other’s presence.

Another example is when parents break the daily grind of keeping kids fed, safe and entertained, and spend intentional time together. My kids like it when I get home at the end of the day, but they LOVE it when I take them out one at a time for daddy-daughter time.

It’s worth it

Just being there with someone is special. And it’s sometimes a little awkward and vulnerable for both people. But it’s so worth it.

Nonverbal patients invite us to do this. They are less equipped to satisfy our egos’ needs for intellectual stimulation or affirmation of the value of our contribution. Our egos need certainty, and nonverbal patients aren’t great at inspiring us with the certainty that our visits to them are time well spent.

In later articles, we’ll talk about how you can gauge some nonverbal behaviors and trust yourself about what they may be communicating. But for now, trust that nonverbal patients, as much as anyone else, need the caring and affirming attention of a good person.

Turn the page to

Hearing the silent: Why hospice social workers must listen to even non-verbal patients

Go back to

When hospice patients or family members won't stop talking

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