Educating Ourselves: Loss of Speech amongst Seniors

Posted by Laura Ng on

We would like to thank Joel for taking time out of his schedule for this interview. 

 

Educating Ourselves: Loss of Speech amongst Seniors

The loss of speech can affect people of all ages in various ways. These include difficulties in verbal communication such as unresponsiveness or slurring, difficulties in swallowing or even memory loss. As we get older, it is normal for changes in our speech to occur. However, not everyone will experience speech impairment as they age. In an interview below, a speech therapist provides insights into the loss of speech amongst seniors in particular, as well as how we can identify its symptoms. 

 

Could you give us a brief introduction about yourself and what you do as a speech therapist?

Sure! My name is Joel, and I’m a speech therapist. I work with people with swallowing and communication difficulties that might arise from neurological diseases, stroke, cancer and dementia. Because communication is multi-faceted, we work with specific areas such as speech, voice, and even the representation of language in the brain. 


Do you normally see elderly patients? Is this something that we should pay attention to?

I used to see more seniors when I worked in a hospital, but I occasionally get cases referred my way. I certainly think older people are a population that we should pay attention to, primarily because it’s important to ensure that they maintain a good quality of life. They’ve worked so hard for our families, and our country - it’s only right that we take good care of them. 


Is speech impairment a normal part of ageing?

With ageing, we typically experience gradually declining physiological processes. Our muscles are weaker, our organs might reduce in function, and our joints might start to wear. The difficulty is in deciding when that decline is a normal part of ageing, or a sign of disease. Our speech and swallowing abilities might also decline with age, however, it is not a given that these will decline to a point where medical help is needed. 

What I believe is a larger problem is isolation and the lack of social interaction, depression, and physical activity. I have seen some seniors come into the hospital very frail,  and with very little motivation to get better. Nobody cared for them actively, engaged them socially, and noticed that their physical and communication abilities were fading. This could probably be prevented if there was somebody around. 


What are some symptoms to look out for?

If you notice a change in speech - that is, it becomes less clear or you find that it’s slurred, it might be worth it to check it out. On the whole, if you find that an individual is particularly forgetful, or can’t seem to keep to the topic during a conversation, it might be worth seeking a medical opinion. 


What are the common causes of these symptoms?

When speech and swallowing are affected, one of the first causes we consider is neurological diseases, which can affect either the nerves or the brain. Alzheimer’s, for example, is a neurodegenerative disease that can affect memory and language, which impact daily function in the early stages. Later on in the disease, motor function can be affected too which includes changes in speech, and in the ability to swallow safely. Dementia affects about 6% of the population above 65 years of age, which is why it is often mistaken as a normal part of ageing.


How can we prevent these symptoms from worsening?

Early detection will be very helpful in the management of any disease. Medical diagnosis ensures that appropriate medication is given and prognosis of the disease is made to help the individual and family prepare psychologically. There’s an old adage within therapeutic circles that goes, “use it or lose it”. Its basic principle is that the brain needs to be continually engaged, and our muscles need to be continually used to maintain dexterity and strength. While this statement doesn’t capture all the nuance that goes into helping individuals with functional difficulties, its broad message is a good one - engage and interact more with our seniors, because it keeps them healthier and happier. 


Is there a way to prevent these symptoms in the first place?

Yes - constantly engaging our seniors socially, physically, and intellectually has a bigger impact than we think. As described earlier, it’s very helpful and can keep loneliness and depression at bay. An additional benefit of being in constant contact with them is that these changes can be picked up earlier, and hopefully treated earlier. 


Is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?

I think that connecting with seniors doesn’t have to be daunting. Young people I’ve interacted with often say, “I don’t know what to talk to them about!”, which is understandable. My usual response is to tell them that they don’t have to try to be interesting, or to entertain them. All they need to do is to be interested, and ask questions. Genuinely find out more about what they love, what they think, what they like to do, and just be there. We shouldn’t underestimate the healing power of relationships and social interaction. 

 

Joel Tay is the founder of Voqol and is an experienced Speech and Voice Therapist who has worked with people with communication and swallowing difficulties for the last 10 years. Joel graduated from NUS with a degree in psychology and a Masters in Speech-Language Pathology.

For more information, you may visit his website https://www.voqol.com/ or contact him via email at joel@voqol.com


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