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Know someone with aphasia? Try these 10 speech-strengthening activities at home

Think of a time when you’re chatting with a friend, and a word gets stuck on the tip of your tongue. Or maybe you’re overwhelmed by emotion, and struggling to form any words at all. Maybe you travel somewhere you don’t know the language.

Even in brief doses, we’ve all felt the frustration of not being able to fully communicate. Over time, it can also be lonely.

People with aphasia, a condition that takes away language, live with this feeling.

“Aphasia can be very socially isolating,” says Joni Hodges, MS, CCC-SLP, a speech therapist with HopeHealth Visiting Nurse.

If your loved one has aphasia, these family activities can help them stay connected — and support their recovery too.

Before you get started

First things first: Talk to a speech therapist.

“Aphasia is very individualized,” says Joni. “Start with an evaluation so you know what type of aphasia your loved one has. Where are their strengths and weaknesses?”

A speech therapist can suggest ways to make the following activities fulfilling, rather than frustrating. They’ll also make sure you’re supporting your loved one’s care plan.

> Related: Get started with speech therapy and other rehabilitation services

Photo and visual activities for someone with aphasia

These activities rely on familiar images to spark language — and more important, connection.

1. Label photos from a favorite hobby. One of Joni’s patients was a car buff, with stacks of photos from car shows. She encouraged him to write descriptions for each photo, with the help of a buddy. What was the car make and model? What did he do to rebuild it? Where did he find the parts? It was a way to spend time with a hobby and good friend, while reclaiming bits of language he’d lost. “I can’t even explain to you how much this man lit up,” Joni says.

2. Flip through family photos. Take turns naming the people, places and activities you see. Some gentle prompting may help your loved one find the words they need. Try starting the sentence, then give them time to complete it. For example: “That’s Aunt…” or “I remember when you baked that…”

3. Look around the home and describe what you see. It’s a go-to strategy for strengthening language, and it might jog a sweet memory. “One patient was struggling to come up with any words until I suggested we look around her yard,” says Joni. “She was immediately able to say ‘roses’ — and then went on to say, ‘I planted every single one of those roses.’ It was a really special moment.”

Music activities to bring back language

For people with aphasia, music sometimes leads to magic moments.

“Language is mostly centered on the left side of the brain, and music is on the right side of the brain,” explains Joni. “When you use music, you’re using a different area of your brain to bring out that language.”

4. Practice social songs. Almost every time Joni meets a new patient, she’ll ask if they know someone with a birthday coming up. “Let’s sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them,” she’ll urge. Because the song is so familiar, it helps unlock language. It’s also associated with happy memories, and community.

5. Sing along to favorite songs. Choose songs from your loved one’s late teens through 20s, when memories tend to be strongest. One patient, who was reluctant about most exercises, joined in with gusto when Joni started singing “You Are My Sunshine.” She’d been part of an organization that used it as their theme song. “She really came alive when she heard that song,” says Joni.

6. Complete song lyrics. Go for something they already know and love, with simple lyrics. For example, a lot of Joni’s patients are Beatles fans, so she’ll often use “Hello, Goodbye.” She’ll sing, “You say goodbye, I say…” then pause for her patient to chime in, “Hello.” As they’re able, she’ll leave more of the lyrics for them to complete.

> Related: How to plan meaningful activities for someone living with dementia

Games to help with aphasia

Time for family game night! With some modifications, your loved one can still be part of the fun. Talk to their speech therapist for help choosing and adapting games.

7. Play charades. Communication is about so much more than language. A good old-fashioned round of charades lets your loved one play to their strengths, like using hand gestures and facial expressions. It also gives family members practice connecting in new ways.

8. Use conversation cards. You can purchase premade cards or create your own. For example: “If you were an animal, what would you be?” If your loved one is having trouble thinking of or saying certain answers — or understanding yours — try drawing or acting it out.

9. Try these other games. Joni’s favorites include Pictionary, 5 Second Rule, and Linky Dink. Most of the time, you’ll need to change the rules a bit to help your loved one fully participate. For example, you can allow more time, or encourage them to write or draw answers.

> Related: How technology helps speech therapy patients in pandemic

Reminiscing activity for aphasia

Besides quality time, this activity creates a lasting legacy: “At the end, you have a beautiful life story you can share with the family,” says Joni.

10. Write your loved one’s life story. One of Joni’s patients was able to complete her memoir thanks to a life story app, which offered simple prompts to fill in. You can also search online for questions, and tailor the process to your loved one. For example, if they need help writing, take turns recording answers. If they struggle to understand who or what you’re asking about, get out those family photos and point.

Tips for communicating with someone with aphasia

Whichever activities you try, follow these tips.

  • Incorporate your loved one’s passions. “A pet lover wants to talk about their pet, a motorhead wants to talk about cars,” says Joni. “If it has an emotional attachment, the brain holds onto that language.”
  • Get rid of distractions. Turn down background noise like TVs, and make sure you have your loved one’s attention before speaking.
  • Use short, simple phrases. Communicate one idea at a time. Ask “yes” and “no” questions instead of open-ended questions.
  • Speak at a normal volume and with a normal, respectful tone. Aphasia doesn’t affect hearing or intelligence – it just means your loved one communicates differently. Keep in mind that they probably understand more than they can express.
  • Be patient. Give them plenty of time to speak. Don’t rush to suggest words or finish their sentences.
  • Find what works. Think beyond speech. Try gesturing, writing, drawing, showing pictures, or using communication apps on a smartphone or tablet.
  • Empower them. Focus on your loved one’s abilities, and encourage them to stay involved in normal, meaningful activities.

With all of the above, and so much more, lean on a speech therapist for advice.

“That’s why we’re here,” says Joni. “We help with the ongoing evolution of what’s going on with your loved one. We make sure activities are appropriately structured. We give you tips and tricks.”

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