Coping with Aphasia: 5 Tools for Regaining Your Grasp of Language
Some 750,000 strokes occur in the U.S. every year, of which approximately a third result in aphasia, the inability to comprehend or formulate language. As of 2019, at least two million people in the U.S. live with aphasia.
Aphasia comes in many flavors, from mild to severe. The worst, global aphasia, includes significant impairments across all aspects of language: impaired speech, comprehension, repetition, naming, reading, and writing.
After I suffered my stroke in early 2005, some of my speech-language pathologists said I was facing global aphasia. The road forward was daunting, but a number of low-cost products, techniques and strategies helped. The key is doing things, and not being too concerned with where or when. The more activities in hand, the more I kept my brain engaged, the more progress I made on recovering.
Whether or not you have the budget to work with a long-term speech-language pathologist, plenty of other strategies can help you improve your ability to understand and communicate. Here are five great resources for improving reading, speech, and listening:
When I embarked on my recovery plan in 2005, there were far fewer tech tools than there are now. For the small cost of a subscription, patients can spend hours a day practicing on their computer, tablet or smartphone. Applications to help conquer brain injury-related conditions, including aphasia, including Constant Therapy, a dynamic program that tailors to your own pace, needs and progress.
Tools for English Language Learners are also highly effective at improving speech, reading and listening for those with aphasia. Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab offers quizzes and exercises to help with content, voices, vocabulary, and speed. Earobics (Cognitive Concepts), though discontinued, is still available on Ebay and other portals. Its games, such as “Memory Matrix,” “Rhyme Time” and “Same/Different,” teach phonological awareness and auditory processing skills. ESL PartyLand includes activities, quizzes, and language lessons based on topics such as food, media and travel.
Reading Out Loud
Whether in a book club or solo, reading a book out loud helps with building cohesive, succinct sentences and increasing the connection between reading and speaking. I joined multiple book clubs so I had to read a different chapter of a different book each week. At first I didn’t comprehend what I was reading, and had to reread portions of a book a few times to actually understand it. But I kept at it, stayed current with the group, and soon saw progress. Flashcards are another great tool, including those specifically meant for people with aphasia.
Aphasia or Stroke Support Groups
More centers and clinics are popping up and recognizing aphasia as a manageable chronic condition that can be improved over time. Studies show that the supportive environment of group programs can be highly effective at helping patients recover language. Some groups use the Life Participation Approach to Aphasia strategy, which encourages patients to set their own goals, express themselves through drawing or writing, and return to activities they enjoyed before their stroke. Other aphasia groups use therapy-driven applications, such as Lingraphica, Tactus Therapy, or Constant Therapy; or traditional applications like Parrot Software and Bungalow Software.
Seek out low-cost community programs led by licensed speech-language pathologists, and clinics offering long-term group therapy and socialization sessions. Some groups provide interactive, virtual speech coach technology under a therapist’s supervision. Consider joining a communication recovery group, and reach out to local groups focused on other activities, such as travel, shopping, holidays and special events, family and relationships, books, movies, exercise, crafts, gardening — the list is endless. All help you practice and improve socializing and communicating. To find a support group, reach out to your local hospital, or contact the National Aphasia Association (800-922-4622).
Community Research Programs
Find out if your community and/or universities conduct research programs or treatment studies on aphasia — they may also provide free or low-cost therapy. A nearby college may train its therapy students by holding support groups, and have spaces available.
Through colleges or universities, you may also find a student to can work with. It’s worth it to check with nearby private clinics and government agencies — as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institutes of Health. Many research programs allow patients and their families to participate for as long as they’re interested.
Family and Friends
Don’t hesitate to lean on family and friends to help you practice the exercises you learn in therapy or various programs and work on conversations, listening, comprehension, and rehearsing common situations. It’s far easier to work on tasks like making a phone call or greeting a delivery person at the door when you have someone to play the other side.
If you have a therapist, see if they can develop a home therapy program for you that involves the participation of loved ones. You may be able to practice on your home computer as well. Practicing and gaining comfort in the company of people you know is vital — and will help you better reset your brain and rediscover language.
The key to coming back from aphasia is to not let it get the best of you. Aim to improve by looking at all the available options, and enlist your friends and loved ones to help. The most important action you can take is doing something. Challenge yourself and keep your brain engaged. Our brain’s neuroplasticity means it can keep forming new connections, adapting and learning. That’s why stroke survivors continue to improve speech, language, memory, arm strength and walking, among other activities.
As I found firsthand, regardless of what a patient is told when they are discharged from the hospital due to a tragic incident like a stroke, they can continue to improve, and they are in charge of how aggressively they want to pursue change.
My advice: No matter the obstacles you come up against, be relentless. Keep fighting. Use the resources out there. You will break through. It’s a myth that stroke survivors can’t get better: I am living proof.
Ted W. Baxter (MBA, Wharton), started as an auditor at Price Waterhouse, passed all four parts of the CPA exam in one take, and built a financial services consulting practice in Tokyo for Price Waterhouse, becoming partner in record time. After working in the Asia-Pacific for Price Waterhouse and as a regional financial controller for Credit Suisse First Boston, he became managing director at Citadel LLC, a premiere hedge fund and global financial institution. He retired after twenty-two years in the financial industry. In April 2005, he experienced a massive ischemic stroke. He’s now an advocate, ambassador, author, and speaker on strokes, aphasia, inspiration and motivation. He volunteers at health institutions, is involved in philanthropic causes, and lives in Orange County, California. He is the author of Relentless: How A Massive Stroke Changed My Life for the Better (Greenleaf Book Group Press, July 2018).