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Caregiver wants to help dad cope with language challenges after a stroke

"Minding Our Elders" columnist Carol Bradley Bursack says there are ways to help a loved one suffering from aphasia, a disorder resulting from damage to portions of the brain that are responsible for language.

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Carol Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
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Dear Carol: My dad suffered a massive stroke that has damaged his ability to find words and name everyday objects. His doctor calls this aphasia. For example, Dad will ask me to get him an object, but he then uses a completely unrelated word to name it. He becomes increasingly frustrated when I don’t understand him. I know he’s mad at himself, not me, but I’d rather have him mad at me. How do I help him? — AL.

Dear AL: My uncle developed aphasia after a string of strokes, so I understand how this breaks your heart. You want your dad to know it’s all right that he’s having trouble. You want to help. Mostly, you want him to stop blaming himself.

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These words from my book illustrate a conversation with my uncle during one of my daily visits:

“Fix my magazines!” he shouted. I dutifully straightened the already neat pile of magazines on his table.

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“No! My MAGAZINES!” He hollered, plum with frustration. I realized that he couldn’t find the proper word, so I started touching objects.

“Do you need new pens?” I asked. “No!” “Is your walker OK?” “No! Yes!”

I opened the drawer. “Your razor? Is your razor broken?” I asked. He looked at me like I was incredibly stupid. "Yes. My magazines!”

I got his razor fixed.

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Even though I know more about diseases and caregiving today, I’m aware of how much my heart would struggle if once again, someone I loved went through that.

However, I know I’d rally, and I’d respond very much as I did with my uncle except for one thing. I’d intentionally say, “I know that you know. It’s all right. We’ll figure it out.” I give myself some grace in that I implied understanding with my patience, but I don’t recall saying those words. Today I would.

According to the National Institute of Health, “Aphasia is a disorder that results from damage to portions of the brain that are responsible for language… Aphasia usually occurs suddenly, often following a stroke or head injury, but it may also develop slowly, as the result of a brain tumor or a progressive neurological disease.”

Here are some tips that may help:

  • First, assure your dad that you know that he knows.
  • Keep your language simple, expressing one thought at a time.
  • Eliminate background noise when possible.
  • Don’t talk down to him (I know you won’t, but some people patronize without realizing it).
  • Use yes and no questions.
  • Point, draw and use hand gestures.
  • Assemble pictures of food, drinks and some of his possessions. Then, he can point to an image.
  • Encourage your dad to accept speech therapy if that’s an option.
  • Exercise patience and empathy (put yourself in his place).
  • Play music. Read to him. Play a game. Most of all, let him know that you still enjoy his company.

AL, even though you can’t cure your dad’s aphasia, you can still do your best to help him cope. Love is like that.

Related Topics: WELLNESSFARGOFAMILY
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver and a nationally-recognized presence in caregiver support. She's the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” a longtime newspaper columnist and host of her blog at mindingoureldersblogs.com. Carol's an introverted book nerd, so you won't see her mugging in viral videos, but you can easily reach her using the contact form at mindingourelders.com.
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