When one hears the phrase “speech therapy,” it can seem a little odd at first. After all, don’t most of us know how to speak? And isn’t “therapy” when we lie on a couch and tell a psychiatrist about our problems? Well, yes and no. Therapy is simply a way of treating diseases or conditions – in this case, conditions that affect a person’s ability to communicate, eat, and even swallow. Read on to learn more about speech therapy for seniors and why it’s so important.
What Can Speech Therapy Help With?
If your loved one has had a stroke, you may already have heard the term “aphasia” bandied about. Aphasia is a communication disorder[1. “Aphasia,” https://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/Aphasia/] in which patients have trouble finding the right word for their thoughts, or their speech is halting or unclear. Speech therapy works to help patients concentrate in order to find the right word, as well as respond to verbal and vocal cues. The goal of the therapy is to have the patient reach the maximum possible functioning, although this may not be the same level that they enjoyed before their stroke. Six months to a year is the general timeframe for seeing improvement with aphasia, if improvement is to be had.
Another side effect of strokes is the condition known as “apraxia.” Symptoms include using words out of order or even having trouble moving their lips correctly to form the words. Treatment can involve asking the patient to repeat certain sounds, and then try to make these sounds into words. In addition, the patient may have to speak more slowly, at least at first, in order to make the words, or say them in the correct order.
Older adults often have problems swallowing for a number of reasons. Some of these include strokes, bouts of pneumonia, or changes in their teeth, gums, and the shape of their mouths. Others involve the lack of saliva, either because of the aging process itself or because the person is taking medications that have “dry mouth” as a side effect. Regardless, the lack of ability to swallow is a serious concern, especially for older adults, who otherwise may not receive crucial nutrients[2. “Preventing Malnutrition in Older Adults,” December, 2010, https://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/seniors/staying-healthy/preventing-malnutrition-in-older-adults.html]. It is this concern that speech therapy attempts to rectify by treating dysphagia, or the inability swallow easily. A speech therapist may recommend special positions for eating, certain foods, or modified utensils to combat this problem.
Another issue that older adults are prone to dealing with is dysarthria, a motor speech disorder with five different types. It is commonly seen in those with diseases that affect the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s, because of weakness or paralysis that are typical of the condition. Symptoms include a slow rate of speech, or speech that sounds mumbled, slurred, or hard to understand. In these cases, a speech therapist will often monitor the patient’s muscle and breathing patterns, as well as have them repeat certain sounds. In this way, they learn the best method for helping the patient. Treatment techniques often involve having the patient work on tongue and lip movement, breathing technique, and speaking more slowly to have time to form words.
Finally, dementia is a condition that most people don’t realize can benefit from speech therapy. In these cases, therapists help patients retain their communication abilities for as long as possible. Therapists can also help the friends, family, and caregivers of the patient communicate better with them. Techniques involve teaching loved ones to rely more on visual cues, simple words, familiar sounds, and the like.
Is Speech Therapy for Seniors Right for Your Loved One?
Speech therapy for seniors isn’t for everyone. Like physical, occupational, and recreational therapy, you need a doctor’s order for it. The first step in seeing if your loved one can benefit is by making an appointment with their doctor. After that, the doctor may order an evaluation by a speech therapist, who will make their own recommendations. If it turns out your loved one is a candidate, you can look forward to exploring the benefits that speech therapy may be able to offer them.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.