Nov 13, 2016

What is Aphasia in Dementia Care?

Aphasia is a disorder that robs you of the ability to communicate and express yourself.

More on dementia and memory care from Rachael Wonderlin | Alzheimer's Reading Room
By Rachael Wonderlin
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Imagine this: you are sitting with a group of friends. They ask, "What do you want to do tonight?" Each friend offers an idea or plan, one by one. It's your turn.

You know exactly what you'd like to do tonight, and you're excited to share it.

You open your mouth...and no words come out. You begin to gesture as if you're speaking, but your mouth only offers noises.

Your friends look perplexed, and begin to misinterpret what you want. Finally, they say, "You're confused. You can just stay here."

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You were left out, but it wasn't because you didn't understand-- it was only because you couldn't speak your mind.

You tried to communicate, but your friends didn't have the patience to try and listen.

If you can imagine how frustrating this must be, you can probably understand what some people with dementia are going through. A few of my residents have what is called

"aphasia,"  which is a disorder characterized by a person's inability to communicate.

Although these residents don't often use words, they each have a unique way of expressing themselves. 

One loves to dance. If you ask her a question and she understands, she will smile and do a little shake of her hips. She gestures, makes noises, and smiles.

One day, I took a few residents to a restaurant for lunch. I sat next to a resident with aphasia, because I wanted to make sure that she got some extra assistance. I gave her some yes or no options for food, and pointed to photos on the menu. She didn't say anything, as usual, while we ordered. After her food arrived, she smiled, picked up the menu next to her, and offered it to me.

"Do you want this?" 

she asked, clear and plain as day, as if she had been speaking to me the whole time. I sat, stunned, and processed what had just happened.

"Sure!" I said, taking the menu. "Thank you," I added. Not only had this woman, who never speaks, completed a whole sentence, but she also spoke in context. She understood.

It made me wonder how much some residents who don't speak understand. 

Just the other day, I encountered another similar situation. We have a really nice, organized "baby station" at Clare Bridge. Some coworkers and I set it up, and there's a cradle, rocking chair, baby clothes, and, of course, a baby doll. The doll looks real, and many of my residents believe it is.

Some residents like to "care" for the baby.

One of my coworkers went in one night to find a resident, who never speaks, holding the baby. She was wrapping it gingerly in a blanket and cuddling it.

My coworker went over to the woman. "Hey, what do you have there?" she smiled, not expecting a response.

"Shh," the resident answered. "I heard him crying."

What I want to suggest is this: 

just because a person cannot speak does not mean that he or she doesn't understand.

Have the patience to take an extra moment to understand what this person wants to say.

Ask yes or no questions, try to interpret body language, and know his or her history and back story.

Give them the opportunity to communicate and connect with you.

Rachael Wonderlin has a Master's degree in Gerontology, and is a Memory Care Program Coordinator. Rachael also writes on her own blog at Dementia By Day.

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Original content Rachael Wonderlin, the Alzheimer's Reading Room

Aphasia is a condition that robs you of the ability to communicate. It can affect your ability to speak, write and understand language, both verbal and written.

Dementia isn't a specific disease. Instead, dementia describes a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily functioning.

Though dementia generally involves memory loss, memory loss has different causes. So memory loss alone doesn't mean you have dementia.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of a progressive dementia in older adults, but there are a number of causes of dementia. Depending on the cause, some dementia symptoms can be reversed.