During Speech Pathology Week, Speech Pathology Australia is raising awareness of the prevalence of communication disabilities among older people, often leaving them feeling vulnerable and isolated, and cut off from the world around them.

Being able to communicate with our fellow humans satisfies one of our most basic human needs – the ability to be understood and the ability to understand others. When communication is taken away, people can feel alone, helpless, and even, eventually, desperate.

Max’s story reveals the very real impact of losing the power to communicate, but also shows that it’s possible to find new ways to be understood. Recovering the ability to communicate had life-changing benefits for Max and helped him to regain a degree of control over his life, and inspire optimism within him.

Max’s story

When residential aged care resident Max began keeping to himself, staying in his room more often than usual and refusing to take part in activities he’d once enjoyed, his carers started to become concerned.

When Max became unsettled, and at times even angry, his carers decided they needed to try a different approach, so they sought expert advice from a speech pathologist.

Could medication be the solution for Max’s ‘deteriorating’ behaviour

Staff at Max’s aged care facility felt the changes they were noticing with his personality and mood were getting worse, and they felt he was showing symptoms of depression. There was even a suggestion that his medication might be increased to settle his mood.

But the staff caring for Max also understood that his difficulties may stem from his inability to communicate. They could see Max was experiencing feelings of frustration and loss of control that were causing him to ‘act out’ his unexpressed emotionsand become angry.

After further consultation with a speech pathologist and health care professionals, they realised increasing his medication was not the solution.

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95% of aged care residents experience a communication disability

Max, like 95 per cent of people living in residential aged care, experienced changes to his communication skills.

After having a stroke eight years ago, Max had regular Transient Ischaemic Attacks, which occur when there is a temporary loss of the supply of blood to the brain, causing stroke-like symptoms. The stroke left Max with aphasia, a communication difficulty that makes it difficult for him to get his words out. Max also experienced some early cognitive decline associated with vascular dementia.

It’s not surprising then that when staff were coming to offer Max a cup of tea or ask if he wanted to join activities, he was having trouble getting his words out quickly enough to respond. Max was also struggling to keep up with conversations among residents.

In addition, a new carer at the facility had changed Max’s routine by not putting on his socks after his shower. The change was making Max feel stressed – even anticipation of the shower began to upset him, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to communicate what he wanted. Eventually, Max lashed out angrily at the carer.

Restoring the power of communication by focusing on what Max can do

The speech pathologist first addressed the issue of the shower routine by creating pictorial aids to help Max communicate to carers how he wanted things done. They helped him to practise using them, so when he couldn’t find the words when carers were with him, he could turn to the visual cues instead.

Care staff were also asked to provide Max with choices about what he wanted to do, so he genuinely felt he was still able to makes choices in his lifeand have control over what was happening to him.

Once these changes were implemented, Max was more relaxed, and once he was calmer, he was able to get more words out. Max is now ready to return to games time, an activity he had previously enjoyed, and is reassured by the fact that the speech pathologist can work with him to overcome any communication difficulties he might come up against in future.

19-25 August 2018, Speech Pathology Week

The week of 19-25 August 2018 is Speech Pathology Week, and Speech Pathology Australia is raising awareness of the prevalence of communication difficulties for people living in residential aged care.

When Max lost the ability to communicate, he wasn’t able to express his wishes, or maintain social connections, it took away his sense of identity, and removed any sense of control he had over his life.

By working with the speech pathologist to find new ways to communicate, Max regained a sense of control over his life, he was able to recover his identity, boost his mood and confidence, and make powerful improvements to the quality of his life.

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