Improving communication after a stroke
Not being able to express ideas, or understand spoken or written language, due to a brain injury is known as aphasia.
This communication loss is often caused by a stroke and has a huge impact on a person’s identity, their relationships, and their ability to find the words they need and connect them into meaningful sentences.
In conjunction with the Stroke Foundation, Nelson Marlborough Health Speech-language therapy team leader Michele Cunningham, runs a community communication group for people with varying degrees of aphasia.
“It’s therapy for people who have aphasia following a stroke,” she says. “We create a supportive environment, with people in a similar situation, so they can practice communication.”
She says the group also gives partners and carers, who often don’t have a good understanding of aphasia, a chance to meet and share stories.
“It is often just as much of a journey for them, so it’s good for them to meet other people who are in a similar situation.”
Aphasia is an invisible disability and not well understood.
“There are varying degrees of communication difficulty, from mild to severe. Some people may look fine but struggle to communicate and can often be treated as if they have an intellectual or hearing disability,” Michelle says. “In the same way people with a physical disability may require a ramp to get into a building, people with aphasia need communication ramps to improve communication access.”
She says how much people with aphasia will improve depends of the type of stroke they have had, the amount of damage, their age, their motivation and many other variables.
“All we can do is support them and provide information, strategies, exercises and stimulation so they can make as much progress as they are able.”
Communication improvement is often measured not so much by how good their speech becomes but by how comfortable they become as a person with aphasia.
“Some people who have very little spoken language develop the ability to communicate quite effectively using methods such as gesture, pointing to pictures or items, facial expression and so on,” Michele says. “Their wellbeing, self-esteem and confidence play a huge role in their outcome.”
Community communication groups helping connect people with aphasia.
The communication group not only helps provide strategies and a place to practice communication, it’s also a social outing which many people with aphasia miss out on.
“We ask the group how people can help them to communicate, and the common responses are: give me time, speak slowly, have a supportive attitude and write down key information.”
There is also a communication group held fortnightly at Wairau Hospital.
Hospital-based speech-language therapists work with people who have communication difficulties for a range of reasons, including stroke, neuro-degenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and motor neurone disease, or cancer of the mouth or throat.
They also work with people who have swallowing difficulties.