Improving Communication for Stroke Survivors: It’s a Team Effort
How a person is affected by a stroke depends on
the severity of the stroke
and what region of the brain the stroke occurs in.
After a stroke, an injury to the right or left hemisphere of the brain can cause speech problems that make it difficult for a survivor to express themselves.
How a person is affected by a stroke depends on the severity of the stroke and what region of the brain the stroke occurs in. The brain’s right hemisphere is the control center for spatial orientation, cognition, and emotional regulation. If you have suffered a stroke on the right side of your brain, you may experience short-term memory loss or have difficulty maintaining your attention.
The left hemisphere is responsible for one’s ability to talk and understand what is said to them. Conversely, a left-brain injury can result in communication impairments that make it difficult for you to get your words out. This phenomenon is called “aphasia.” For right-brain stroke survivors, their native language can start to sound like gibberish- a phenomenon known as “dysarthria.”
In this article, we will be focusing on the communication difficulties that can arise from a stroke and how a support team that includes family members and speech therapists is integral to the survivor’s recovery.
The Role of Speech Therapy in Post-Stroke Recovery
A stroke in either hemisphere can result in a spectrum of frustrating speech impairments. If left untreated, the injuries that cause these speech impairments can lead to other health conditions, like swallowing difficulties and aspiration pneumonia. To avoid these complications and minimize a survivor’s hospital stay, speech therapists and language therapists step in with exercises and treatment plans that help survivors recover as quickly as possible.
In the first three days after a stroke, a survivor may feel exhausted; it’s at this time that their support team will perform tests and bloodwork to determine where the stroke occurred and what challenges could lie ahead for the survivor. As many as 40% of stroke survivors experience aphasia as a result of brain injury. Fortunately, the outlook of improvement for communication recovery is generally very good with the involvement of a speech therapist, the support of family, and the determination of the survivor.
How Speech Therapy Works for Stroke Survivors
The rehabilitation program that a speech therapist forms with the survivor and often in cooperation with their family depends on the nature of the stroke and its effects on the survivor. Some speech therapy exercises that survivors may be tasked with include:
Breathing exercises: If you have ever tried to speak when you are out of breath, you can understand the struggle that many stroke survivors face when trying to get their words out. Often, regulating breaths can be difficult, especially when speaking- making it difficult for the survivor to make it through a full sentence without gasping for air. Speech therapists can help by working with the survivor to “plan” their breaths and relearn how to construct sentences without exasperation.
Tongue strengthening exercises: Tongue paralysis presents many safety and communication concerns for survivors and their families. Tongue strengthening exercises focus on improving the tongue’s mobility and the survivor’s control of the muscles involved to make it easier for survivors to form words in their mouth. It’s easy to take our ability to form words for granted, but stroke survivors often have to relearn the muscle memory involved in word-formation. Speech therapy can also improve the neural pathways needed for this muscle memory.
Image naming exercises: Speaking of neural pathways, one consequence of strokes is that survivors can have difficulties putting a name to an image or object. They may feel like the name for just about everything is at the tip of their tongue, and without therapy, many survivors lose motivation to strengthen those neural pathways. Relearning how to put words and names to things and images is a common exercise in speech therapy that can drastically improve the way a survivor connects what they see with what they speak.
How Caregivers Can Help Survivors and Encourage Communication
Once a stroke and the challenges it presents have been identified, speech therapists can set straight to work developing a rehabilitation plan. But they will only be around for so long, and at some point, the survivor will have no other than their familial support system to help them keep up with the treatment plan. Here’s how caregivers and loved ones can offer their support:
- Give survivors a chance to speak for themselves without finishing sentences for them. Encourage them to try and say whatever is on their mind and tell them that there’s no need to rush; progress is made little by little.
- Don’t hurry the silence. It can take a bit longer for survivors to comprehend what was spoken to them and figure out how to respond. Give them plenty of space to process what they heard and respond without becoming frazzled.
- Speak normally. Talk to them the same way you would take to anyone else. It is not helping them when you speak louder or slower than you normally would. Express to them that you are happy to slow down if they ask you to.
- Keep it simple. Challenging a survivor to express complex ideas or respond with extended sentences may only breed frustration and cause them to feel discouraged. Ask more yes or no questions, and don’t overload them with too much information at once.
- Be patient. Recovery is not always linear and stroke survivors can have good days and bad. When bad days rear their ugly heads, ensure your loved ones that setbacks aren’t forever and that you won’t give up on them.
Local Support for Stroke Survivors in Williamson County
There are many resources available for stroke survivors and their support teams both online and in person. They include:
- Stroke support groups in Texas, such as the Ascension Seton Stroke Support Group in Austin and Central Austin Stroke Support Group.
- The Stroke Careviver Support Network led by the American Heart Association.
- Local speech therapy specialists at All Care Therapies in Georgetown as well as Reavis Rehab & Wellness Center in Round Rock.
Most stroke survivors begin to make significant improvements after three to four months of persistent rehabilitation, but some survivors may need to continue their exercises and treatment plans for upwards of two years after their stroke. Though some people make full recoveries, others will never be the same again. By staying strong for them and uplifting their spirits each day, your love and support can make a major difference in their short and long-term prognosis.