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Aphasia – An uncommon term – but a common problem for many

May 9, 2012

According to the National Health Observances calendar, June is National Aphasia Awareness Month.  Although Aphasia is a word that’s probably not familiar to many of us, the condition is more common than you might think.  You may even know someone who has Aphasia, possibly a family member who’s had a stroke, or know or read about someone severely impacted by a traumatic brain injury. 

Laura Hargraves, MS, CCC-SLP, of Healthpro Rehabilitation prepared the following article on behalf of Masonicare Health Center’s Rehabilitation Department.  The article gives an overview of Aphasia and provides important information on how people with this condition – and their families as well – can be helped. 

What is Aphasia?

Aphasia is a language problem that affects a person’s ability to communicate with others.  People who have Aphasia have difficulty understanding, speaking, reading and writing. Fortunately, it usually doesn’t affect a person’s cognitive skills – or their ability to think.   

What causes Aphasia?

Aphasia is caused by an injury to the brain, most typically from a stroke or a traumatic brain injury. The damage occurs on the left side of the brain, where the center for language functioning is found. 

What are some of the ways Aphasia can affect people?

There are three types of Aphasia, and each one affects people in different ways.  For example, people with “Expressive” Aphasia might leave words out of sentences or find it impossible to say more than one or two words at a time.  It can also take away a person’s ability to spell and write.  People with this type of Aphasia find it difficult to make sense when speaking, which severely limits their ability to communicate with family and friends. 

The second type, or “Receptive” Aphasia, makes it difficult for a person to understand and follow directions or to keep up with a conversation – especially if there are several people participating.  People with Receptive Aphasia often need to have information repeated, or don’t realize when they’ve said something that others can’t understand.  They might need visual or tactile (touch) cues to help them understand.

“Global” Aphasia is the most debilitating, causing numerous problems for those afflicted.  Significant difficulty with speaking, understanding, reading and writing is common, and all areas are affected to one degree or another.  A person with Global Aphasia will need extra time to fully process information.  

What else should I know about Aphasia?

People with Aphasia can also have both apraxia and dysarthria.  Apraxia, a motor speech disorder, makes it difficult for people who know what they want to say but can’t get the words out.  Dysarthria is muscle weakness, which causes the slurring of words, the inability to speak loudly, or adds a nasal quality to the voice. 

Fortunately, these skills can improve as the brain heals, with improvement soon after the stroke known as Spontaneous recovery.  In many cases, speech therapy provided by a licensed Speech Language Pathologist can go a long way toward helping people with Aphasia regain their ability to communicate and improve their quality of life.

How can I help someone who has Aphasia?

Quite often, people with Aphasia aren’t aware that the person they’re speaking with doesn’t understand what they’re saying.  They also may become frustrated when they can’t understand what’s being said to them.  In large groups, conversations can be overwhelming, causing a person to withdraw, and prolonged interactions can cause fatigue.  The individual with Aphasia does best in 1 to 1 interactions or small groups.  

Aphasia can also cause mood swings – dramatic changes that occur suddenly and without explanation – and depression and anger are not uncommon. Some people become very aware of body language and rely on that for information when they’re unable to understand what’s being said to them. Also, sticking with a consistent routine can often help a person with Aphasia feel more comfortable in their surroundings.

How does Aphasia affect families?

Families can also go through a dramatic change, and family members often experience emotional upheavals. They might experience anger, confusion, despair and anxiety as well.  Their whole world has changed because the relationships that had been in place for so long have been greatly impacted. 

What are some strategies that can help?

Be sure to give the person with Aphasia time to talk; don’t talk for him or her. Simplify your speech patterns – use simple ideas, not abstract concepts – and speak slowly. Use natural gestures to help the person understand, and communicate often through touch.  Be sure to acknowledge and verbalize the frustration being experienced by your loved one, and make more statements and comments rather than demands or questions. 

Remember that Aphasia can have a profound effect on both the individual affected and his or her family.  And if you’re caring for someone with this condition, it’s very important that you take care of yourself and keep up your own social activities. This is not being selfish – it simply means you’ll be better prepared to help your loved one.

 Masonicare Health Center’s Rehabilitation Department has patient, caring therapists who specialize in geriatric speech disorders.  They evaluate speech patterns, language, and swallowing, and assist with the latest techniques for more effective communication. Medicare and most major insurance is accepted. 

If you’d like to learn more, call Masonicare Health Center’s Rehabilitation Department at 203-679-6909 or the Masonicare HelpLine at 1-888-679-999.