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When your loved one has aphasia

August 12, 2014

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Aphasia is a language disorder that can impact comprehension and communication. Learning to communicate with someone who has aphasia – which can occur following stroke, traumatic brain injury or a brain tumor -- can have a positive impact on recovery.

Stroke can cause many changes, including how people communicate.  Aphasia, a language disorder that may occur, can impact how your loved one understands, speaks, reads and writes. Learning to communicate with someone who experiences aphasia – which can also occur following traumatic brain injury or a brain tumor -- can have a positive impact on their recovery.

Communicating with a person who is experiencing aphasia begins by better understanding what is taking place, explains Meredith Nye, a Duke speech pathologist. “Aphasia doesn’t impact a person’s hearing or thinking skills like memory. “ Rather, she says, people with aphasia may use the wrong word, like “mother” instead of “daughter” or “yes” instead of “no.”  Or they may make up words, unintentionally repeat themselves, or only be able to say a few words or sounds when they are trying to communicate.

Speech pathologists can help relatives and friends work with a loved one who has aphasia, and find ways to communicate effectively. Nye recommends keeping these tips in mind:

  • Focus their attention.   Make sure you conversation is taking place in a quiet, well-lit room where there are no distractions. Turn off background disturbances like the radio or television.  It’s best to limit conversation to one or two people at the most.
  • Use all forms of nonverbal communication. Rather than rely on words, use a wave to say “goodbye” or “hello.”   Thumbs up is the universal sign for “good job” or “yes.”   Your facial expressions can show anger, sadness or elation. Exchange written or drawn messages. For example, when telling you the month they are going on vacation, the person with aphasia may write the numbers 1-12.  Then they may circle 7, meaning they are going on vacation in July.
  • Have patience.  Sometimes it takes longer for a person with aphasia to communicate. Count to 10 slowly before providing help or choices.  Many times it takes that long or longer for them to get their message out.
  • Confirm your understanding. After an exchange with your loved one, make sure you understand by verbally repeating, or by writing a synopsis of the message’s key points.  If he or she wanted coffee, write “coffee” and draw a picture.  Use intonation in your voice when you ask, “you want coffee?” and point to the picture.  Have them answer yes or no.
  • Use technology.  Computers, smart devices, and other forms of technology can help people with aphasia return to hobbies, read, and converse with friends.  Icons and emojis (the smiley faces and other graphics so prevalent in computer communication) can enhance email and social media conversations.  Encourage your loved one to listen to books on tape in addition to reading the print version.  Speech pathologists can also recommend programs that enable your loved one to use word prediction or speech to text capabilities.
  • Get help. Speech pathologists can help people make progress even years after they are originally diagnosed with aphasia, says Nye.  “We can help them focus on their strengths, and find ways to better engage with family and their community. We can offer tools to help them socialize and have a better quality of life through communication.”
  • Find aphasia support groups. There are many groups and resources in the community to support people with aphasia and their families.   Nye says a speech-language pathologist is your best resource for groups in your area.

Learn more about speech pathology services at Duke

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