Eating and communicating are daily parts of our lives that we often don’t stop to think about, but when someone has difficulty doing one or the other it can greatly affect their quality of life. Luckily, speech language pathologists are here to help them; these members of our teams work one-on-one with patients and their families to develop strategies to overcome issues related to communication and swallowing. To learn more about how they do it, we chatted with Sarah Gillespie, a speech language pathologist in our geriatric clinic.
As a speech language pathologist, what do you do?
If you have difficulty swallowing, it may mean that food or liquid is going into the lungs which can cause coughing, choking, weight loss or even lead to a pneumonia. People experiencing difficulty swallowing come in for an assessment, where we do a video x-ray of them eating and drinking different types of food. I make recommendations about the safest consistencies for them and, if necessary, they come back for follow-up appointments to make sure they’re tolerating the changes to their diet.
For communication, most of the people I see have had a stroke so they have difficulty with language (called aphasia) – they can have difficulty expressing themselves or understanding. Sometimes I’m developing strategies for just the patient, sometimes it’s for them and their families. I’ll do an assessment with them and then, if it’s necessary, I’ll see them for a whole block of sessions where they come see me once a week. We do communication-based activities – for example, people who have aphasia often have trouble finding words so we do activities to help with that and come up with strategies they can use when they can’t find their words.
What made you interested in this field?
I did my undergrad in linguistics — I always liked languages and I always thought I wanted to be a teacher. When I heard about speech pathology it seemed like it was a perfect meld of teaching and language.
What’s your favourite thing about what you do?
It’s very satisfying when I see progress in a patient, for example when someone who needed a lot of modifications for their diet when I first saw them has progressed to the point where they’re eating more normal consistencies of food and are getting healthier. Similarly when communication patients come back to me and say that they’re communicating better at home, that’s very rewarding.
What’s important for people to remember when speaking with someone who has difficulty communicating?
When speaking with someone who has aphasia, it’s important to remember that it’s a communication impairment, not a cognitive one; they know what they want to say – they just have difficulty saying it. Sometimes you just need to give them time.
And remember that while we often speak to share our thoughts, there are other ways we can communicate including body language and writing. Sometimes asking if there’s another way someone can tell you or show you what they want to say is great because then they’re able to express themselves and move the conversation forward.
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