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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published December 08 2012

Minding our Elders: Counter speech loss with extra time and caring

DEAR CAROL: My dad had a severe stroke last month. He’s home now and in a wheelchair. What I find the most difficult to deal with is his speech. He’s getting therapy but he gets so frustrated that I hate to put him through the effort of speaking. Also, he has what the therapist calls aphasia, so he can’t always remember what objects are called. That, of course, frustrates him horribly because when he does manage to get a word out, it’s often the wrong word for what he wants. What can I do to help? Laura

DEAR LAURA: Losing our ability to communicate our needs to others causes immense emotional pain, both to people directly affected and the people who love them. I can relate to your situation because my uncle had aphasia after a series of strokes. To this day, his frustration over getting the smallest point across remains strong in my memories of him.

Your dad’s speech therapist may be able to help him improve his speech, but the aphasia could remain. Meanwhile, you’ll need to work on picking up his more subtle signals. This will take patience and attentiveness on your part.

The need to communicate a specific answer to a particular question can often be very stressful for someone like your dad. Try to minimize his struggle by asking yes or no questions when possible. You can ask if he’s thirsty. If he indicates he is, then you can suggest different drinks until you hit the one he’d like. Giving choices and letting him nod or shake his head can make this type of communication easier.

Having a list of printed words or pictures can help, as well. His speech therapist can likely suggest resources for you to use. He or she may tell you that you should encourage your dad to say words when possible. If that’s the case, ask how far you should push him and what you should do to make communication easier. The therapist will have a better idea of how much your dad is capable of than you will. You want to help him improve but not frustrate him unduly.

It’s more important to share time with your dad than to actually hold a conversation with him. If you watch movie with him or TV sports he enjoys, that will help him understand that his inability to speak well isn’t making you so uncomfortable that you don’t enjoy time with him. Many elders enjoy looking at photo albums. Maybe some pictures from the time when you were a child would amuse you both.

Touching is important, too. A hug, a touch on his arm or a kiss on his cheek can make a difference to him. Work with him to help him communicate better, but don’t make speech the only way you interact. It’s the full experience that matters. You sound like a caring person who will make this work. Good luck.


Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.