Connecting with Stroke and Brain Injury Survivors

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Life-saving communication skills for those most in need There's sure a lot to roar about, says this often cowardly lion, when it comes to roaring, as Mike Wallace once did, "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Ah, if only he'd roared against age discrimination; maybe 60 Minutes would have kept him on to show the reality of old age, even for the rich and famous. "I don't like being old," he said at 87, ruefully noting hearing aids breaking down again and glasses being too weak to read well, etc. Obituaries say almost nothing about elders' last years, but how thankful I was to hear these words from journalist Chris Wallace's moving tribute to his dad: "I just can't imagine life without him." Almost nothing was said about Dick Clark's life after his 2004 stroke, something most elders dread as much as Alzheimer's or other brain failures. Although his speech was impaired, like most wealthy people, comprehensive and ongoing after care was available to him. My cousin Virginia's severe stroke left one side paralyzed; with little speaking ability, I wonder why her speech therapy was dropped. Ah, but Virginia does have the spousal and family care that money can't buy-and how we must roar for this so essential form of caring that even the rich and famous may lack. In part, it's because communication with a speech-impaired person is so difficult and our society doesn't teach communication skills in general, let alone the special needs kind. But hallelujah! The Church of the Epiphany on York has become the first church selected by the National Aphasia Society for its pilot program, which was introduced following last Sunday's service. Potentially redemptive it is, and not only when speech is limited by stroke or other brain injury or failure. Aphasia is defied as "an impairment of the ability to use or comprehend words, usually as a result of a stroke or other brain injury." The Aphasia Society's mission is "to assist both survivors and caregivers with support and guidance, to raise awareness of aphasia and to help people with aphasia, no matter how severe, reconnect with each other and the community." But these communication enhancers help everyone, said the two impassioned presenters, members of The Church of the Epiphany. To be continued. For now, remember that losing the ability to speak doesn't mean lost intelligence or human feelings. My dear cousin Virginia managed to convey feeling "so trapped." Ways to help "untrap" even the most severely impaired include asking questions with yes or no answers. Speak clearly and fairly slowly, but not as if speaking to a child. Be patient, smile and reassure. Use gentle gestures, Use music. Keep the environment quiet (hear that, Earth Day organizers?). Include those with aphasia in any group conversation. That's my Share the Talk Club's first commandment. Always remember the survivors' instruction sheet statement: "We are still the same person inside. We are adults. We deserve respect and dignity." Again, this applies to everyone with disabilities-not least those caused by aging and innate shyness, conditions that undoubtedly prompt this columnist's above-average concern for these life and health-enabling communication skills. So let's start roaring for all that, by, well, sharing this column, and above all, contacting The National Aphasia Association at 350 Seventh Ave., Suite 902, New York, NY 10001. Call 1-800-922-4622 or visit Attention has got to be paid!

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