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How You Can Help a Loved One Who’s Struggling with Aphasia

We’ve all heard the phrase “lost for words”. And from time to time we all have problems finding the right words to express ourselves. However, for people who develop aphasia, a language disorder where the ability to communicate is compromised, this can become part of their daily life. For those with aphasia, support from loved ones and others around them is vitally important to living a normal life.

“It can be hard for people with aphasia to express themselves, understand others or both. They can have difficulty with their ability to speak, read and write,” said Carol Ann Parkinson, a speech-language pathologist with Banner Physical Therapy in Casa Grande, AZ. “But aphasia does not affect their intelligence or the way they think. People with aphasia deserve autonomy in their lives. Whenever possible, it’s important to support and encourage your loved one to communicate at home and out in the community."

What causes aphasia?

Aphasia is caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls language abilities, most often on the left side. This brain damage usually occurs as a result of:

  • Stroke
  • Head injury/traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Brain tumors
  • Progressive brain diseases

How you can improve your communication with someone who has aphasia

Parkinson stresses the importance of patience. “Give your loved one time to ‘find’ the words they are looking for,” she said. It can also be helpful to:

  • Limit background noise and distractions.
  • Ensure you have your loved one’s attention before beginning a conversation.
  • Use shorter sentences.
  • Repeat key words.
  • Use a slower rate of speech to aid their understanding.
  • Help clarify the message by asking them to describe what they understand.
  • Ask a variety of questions, including yes or no questions.
  • Encourage the use of alternate communication methods when necessary. They can include writing, drawing, gestures, alphabet boards or other forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

What to avoid when communicating with someone who has aphasia

When your loved one has trouble communicating, you might feel impatient or frustrated. “Remember that aphasia is difficulty with expression and comprehension, not with hearing or intelligence,” Parkinson said. Here are some things you shouldn’t do:

  • Don’t provide a word or finish a sentence for a loved one, unless they ask you to or they are obviously frustrated.
  • Don’t yell—they can hear you.
  • Don’t use childlike language, which can imply that they lack intelligence.
  • Don’t pretend to understand if you don’t—work with them to help clarify their message.

Treatment for aphasia

There are several types of aphasia, and they are often separated into two categories—non-fluent and fluent aphasia:

  • People with non-fluent aphasia typically understand better than they can speak. They might use single words, short sentences and leave words out. Broca’s aphasia (expressive aphasia) and global aphasia are types of non-fluent aphasia.
  • People with fluent aphasia may have normal speech rhythm and fair grammar, but they include words or sounds that aren’t correct that sound like nonsense to the listener. In milder cases, they may have typical speech but replace nouns and verbs with words like “thing” and “that.” Wernicke’s aphasia and anomic aphasia are types of fluent aphasia.
  • Primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia, can be fluent or non-fluent.

A speech-language pathologist can provide speech therapy to treat the different types of aphasia. In treatment, a person with aphasia may practice spoken language, listening, reading and writing. They may also learn strategies to help them compensate for aphasia and repair communication when it breaks down. Treatment sessions could be one-on-one, with family members or loved ones, or in small groups.

The bottom line

Your loved one with aphasia may struggle with a loss of language and to communicate. Your patience and support can help them share their thoughts. And speech-language therapists can help treat aphasia. To connect with a speech-language pathologist to learn more, reach out to Banner Health.

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