Living with Aphasia and Dysarthria

| Health and Wellness

Speech therapist teaching senior woman patient

Aphasia and dysarthria are two types of communication disorders that affect many older adults in Canada, often as the result of a stroke or another type of acquired brain injury. These and other communication difficulties can have a profound impact on a person’s life, causing feelings of frustration, anger, confusion and isolation, as well as taking a toll on personal relationships.

“Our ability to communicate with our family members, friends and others is something we take for granted. When that ability is taken away from us, it can be devastating,” says Cheryl Metcalfe, Director – Ontario LHIN Therapy Services at Bayshore Therapy & Rehab.

What is aphasia?

Aphasia is a disorder that affects a person’s ability to use and/or understand language. Causes of aphasia include strokes, head trauma, brain tumours, dementia and other medical conditions.

There are two types of aphasia:

  • People who have expressive aphasia may understand what others are saying, but they have trouble communicating. Their words might be mixed up, nonsensical or completely different than what they intended to say. They may have difficulty saying more than one word or phrase at a time.
  • People who have receptive aphasia have difficulty understanding spoken and written words.

People can have one or both types of aphasia. Both types interfere with reading, writing, use of numbers and self-expression. They can be mild or severe, and temporary or long-lasting (or permanent), depending on the location and amount of damage to the brain.

What is dysarthria?

Dysarthria is a speech disorder resulting from paralysis, muscle weakness or other problems with the muscles we use to speak – the ones in our face, tongue, lips and throat, and the muscles that help us breathe.

Dysarthria can affect how someone pronounces words, the volume of their voice, and the speed of their speech (too fast or too slow). It can cause people to “slur,” mumble or sound hoarse, choppy, nasal or breathy.

The causes of dysarthria include strokes, head trauma, brain tumours, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis and other medical conditions. Working with a speech-language pathologist to improve the movement of the lips, tongue, etc., may reduce the impact of dysarthria.

“Communication is a basic, fundamental right that everyone deserves to have,” says Metcalfe. “If you or a loved one is having difficulty, ask your family doctor for a referral for speech-language pathology services. Speech-Language Pathologists help patients regain their ability to communicate, either verbally or by using devices and other techniques that support communication in other forms.”

Tips for improving communication

If you have a loved one who has a communication disorder, try these strategies to help yourselves understand each other:

  • Reduce ambient noise and distractions (TV, radio, etc.).
  • Ensure there is good lighting, and sit or stand where you can see each other.
  • Get your loved one’s attention before you start talking.
  • Talk about one topic or idea at a time.
  • Speak clearly, slowly (but avoid treating your loved one like a child).
  • Use gestures and facial expressions as it may help them understand.
  • Keep sentences simple and concise.
  • Ask yes/no questions or give options, rather than asking open-ended questions.
  • Repeat words or phrases as needed.
  • Don’t interrupt when your loved one speaks, and avoid correcting them.
  • Paraphrase what you think they are saying.
  • Watch their body language for clues about what they mean.
  • Try other methods of communication, such as writing, drawing or pointing.
  • Ask your loved one’s physician to refer you to a Speech-Language Pathologist for support and advice.
  • Look for a support group in your community.
  • Contact the Aphasia Institute for resources and other supports

Additional resource

Heart & Stroke: Communication

Bayshore Therapy & Rehab offers in-home speech and language pathology services to assess and treat swallowing and communication challenges. Bayshore Home Health offers a wide range of home care services to help Canadians live as independently for as long as possible. Contact us at 1.877.289.3997 for details.