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Speaking in Tongues: Facts about Aphasias
Aphasia is probably not a term most people outside of the medical and research community have heard of, but this disorder affects more than one million people of all ages in the United States. Aphasia is a communication disorder that occurs when the language centers of the brain sustain damage from illness, dementia, or injury. In seniors, the most common cause of aphasia is stroke. Victims of aphasia have difficulty communicating with others and may also have difficulty comprehending what others are saying, and this difficulty can be quite severe or very mild, almost unnoticeable.
Aphasia can be very stressful for seniors affected by the disorder and for those who are trying to communicate with them. Seniors with aphasias may not have lost other cognitive functions and so may become frustrated and angry at their inability to communicate. They know what they would like to say, but they are unable to say it. This frustration may lead to depression and isolation, and as the senior isolates, the language centers of the brain are used less often, slowing recovery from the aphasia.
Having someone in the home interacting with the senior with aphasia can aid recovery. In-home caregivers can playing word- and picture-based games, such as Scrabble® or Pictionary®, as well as engage in other therapeutic activities to help the person work the language centers of the brain. Caregivers can also provide the emotional and social support seniors with aphasias need, alleviating feelings of depression and isolation.
Family members may also feel helpless and cut off from the senior. They may not fully understand what is happening, so it is essential that they have as much information as possible. Some basic information includes the following:
- Aphasias do not always become progressively worse. With therapy, seniors can often recover their lost language abilities.
- The senior’s inability to communicate does not necessarily reflect a decline in cognitive function. The loss of language is not a loss of intelligence. As much as possible, the senior should continue to be included in family activities and decision-making processes.
- Likewise, the presence of aphasia does not mean the senior has memory loss. Aphasia occurs from damage to the very specific language centers of the brain. It is not that the senior cannot remember language; it is that the senior has lost the ability to formulate and comprehend language.
Changing communication styles can help the senior and the family communicate thereby reducing frustration, and anger. Below are a number of communication strategies to help families of seniors with aphasia:
- Simplify sentences. If the senior does not initially understand what you say, reword the message using simpler words and sentence structures. However, and most importantly, speak to the senior as an adult, not a child. A speech-language therapist can offer suggestions on how to best accomplish this.
- Give the senior plenty of time to speak. Do not try to speak for the senior.
- Use touch, gestures, and body language to get your meaning across.
- Let the person know you understand the frustration he or she feels at not being able to communicate.
Family members should also be careful that they take care of themselves during the recovery process. Having a professional caregiver come into the home can offer a reprieve for the family caregivers to maintain their own social and personal lives while ensuring the needs of the senior are met. Staying healthy, both mentally and physically, will better enable the family caregivers to support their seniors in need.
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Family Adjustment to Aphasia. Retrieved from https://www.asha.org.
- American Stroke Association. (March 18, 2013). Types of Aphasia. Retrieved from https://www.strokeassociation.org/STROKEORG/LifeAfterStroke/RegainingIndependence/CommunicationChallenges/Types-of-Aphasia_UCM_310096_Article.jsp
- National Aphasia Association. (n.d.). Aphasia Facts. Retrieved from https://www.aphasia.org/content/aphasia-facts.
- National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. (October 2008). Aphasia. Retrieved from https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/pages/aphasia.aspx.