The elderly suffer from a wide variety of diseases that may impact their ability to communicate effectively. Diseases such as strokes, dementia, head injuries, etc. often cause problems with communication, behavior, organization, and the ability to solve problems easily.
These are all areas that may benefit from speech therapy services. There are a number of consequences to ignoring speech and communication problems.
They can include:
- An inability to get the attention of someone and effectively communicate what is needed. This can be as simple as getting a drink of water or as complex as getting emergency medical care. Sometimes a person can appear to be able to communicate effectively, but a closer examination reveals that the person really does not have the ability to request specific items or respond accurately to questions.
- Increased difficulty communicating emotions in an appropriate manner. This can lead to arguments, inappropriate behavior, or physical threats. These problems can be communication-based or stress-related.
- Difficulty managing personal, medical, and/or financial matters. This may cause problems with missed appointments. It can lead to missed medications or other medical treatments. It can also lead to unpaid bills and the threat of legal action.
- An inability to anticipate potentially dangerous situations and avoid injury. Some seniors will accept help from strangers without thinking of the possible consequences. They may share private information with people over the phone. They may engage in risky behaviors that may lead to injury (climbing a ladder to clean out the gutters, carrying heavy objects, running errands when there is a lot of ice and snow).
A comprehensive speech therapy evaluation can determine if there is a language-based problem, what the nature of the problem is, and how best to address through treatment. Sometimes what appears to be a “memory” problem may actually be a problem with processing auditory information or mentally organizing information so that it can be recalled at a later time. Speech therapy can focus on teaching the patient techniques to process, organize, or recall information. The focus of speech therapy may also include instruction in compensatory strategies such as writing down information, recording information, color-coding information, or recording events in a journal.
There are also times when a speech therapy evaluation may be needed to rule out a speech, language, or cognition problem. In cases where there does not appear to be a speech or language deficit, it may make sense to look at other possible factors. These can include medications, dehydration, depression, or an underlying medical problem. It is not normal for an elderly person to have difficulty communication, organizing their thoughts or completing everyday tasks related to personal, medical, and financial management. Problems with these tasks should be reported to the primary care physician so that signs and symptoms can be determined, possible causes identified, and proper treatment rendered.
Another great way to exercise seniors’ minds is to sit down and read the newspaper with them. If your senior cannot actively read, you can read the paper to him or her, pointing out the photos, talking about the stories, and asking what your parent thinks.
Elders who are suffering from full or borderline dementia, and who may be speaking a great deal of gibberish, can still be engaged in conversation, even if you can’t always understand them.
What’s important to remember is that seniors who have communication problems are still people and still have something to say. Engaging them in conversation is the best way to respect this essential aspect of what it means to be a human being.