Imagine you're at a barbecue and you try to strike up a conversation with a family member or a stranger but they struggle to converse with you and just can't seem to get the words out or understand what you are saying.
What would you do, find it all a bit hard and wander off to chat with someone else?
More than 140,000 Australians live with aphasia, a condition caused by damage to the brain in the areas you use for communication. It can occur after a stroke, traumatic brain injury, brain tumour or, as in the case of famous American actor Bruce Willis, by some kinds of dementia.
It can also be very isolating, leading to depression, anxiety and loneliness.
Up to 38 per cent of stroke survivors can have aphasia and the World Stroke Organisation states that one in four of us will have a stroke in our lifetime.
This means that some of us will either develop aphasia or will need to communicate with someone with aphasia.
Aphasia affects a person's communication, not their intelligence
Charles Sturt University Scholarly Teaching Fellow in speech pathology Alexandra Spiller points out that aphasia effects a person's communication, not their intelligence.
"Different people experience aphasia in different ways; it can create difficulties with understanding speech, reading, writing, speaking, or a combination of these. It can lead to isolation and loneliness.
Ms Spiller asks: "If you sat down at a barbecue next to a relative with aphasia, would you feel comfortable to chat? What about if someone with aphasia came to your work looking for help with a product or service, but couldn't tell you exactly what they were after? Would you know what to do?
Your relative may be finding it hard to keep up with the pace of all the different conversations going on around them, or might find it hard to get out what they want to say quickly enough to join in.
How can you help?
"The most important thing you can do is give a person with aphasia your time and attention. Do not ignore a person with aphasia or leave them out and talk to their companions instead. Be patient and give them time to communicate," says Ms Spiller.
"Turn down background noise (e.g. TV or music) if you can. Make sure you have their attention before you speak. Make eye contact. Speak clearly but without being patronising, they don't want or need baby talk. Some people may want you to speak more slowly, others may find this irritating. Ask about their communication needs."
If you have not understood what was said, be honest. You can repeat what you heard and then try to clarify what was not clear. Asking yes/no questions and giving the person more time to think can be helpful. Most people dislike when you speak for them, so if you think you know what they want to say, ask "can I guess?" rather than just saying the word you think they mean.
"Try to stick to one topic at a time and use gestures, writing, or pictures alongside the conversation. If they're talking about a place, person, or thing and you don't understand, then you could use whatever tools you have nearby to help.
"For example, if you are talking about music, you might open a streaming app to look at the album covers. For travel, you could bring up some images of the places you want to go or a map. Sharing photos of important events can help your conversation stay focussed on a single topic," says Ms Spiller.
Communicating with children can be tiring for people with aphasia. If possible, have children take turns talking without interrupting each other so the person with aphasia can concentrate on one speaker at a time.
Pictures can also help children communicate with people who have aphasia by being a shared reference point.
What about when you need to help someone with aphasia in the workplace?
Stroke survivor Kym Brockoff, uses gestures to make choices when he cannot say the word he wants. He shares his experience of ordering food and coffee.
Visual supports can also be as simple as tapping a takeaway cup when asking if someone wants their coffee to go or pointing to the cake fridge when asking if the customer would like something to eat.
Where to find support
People with aphasia are at high risk of depression and anxiety. If you, or someone close to you, has aphasia following a stroke, a speech pathologist can provide support to stroke survivors and more personalised communication training specific to their needs for friends and family.
Find a Speech Pathologist through Speech Pathology Australia.
The World Stroke Organisation is raising awareness that 90 per cent of strokes could be prevented by addressing a small number of risk factors including high blood pressure (hypertension), irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation), smoking, diet and exercise.
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