Nav: Home

Helping dementia patients recall grandchildren's names

October 24, 2016

  • Lack of specially trained speech-language pathologists for dementia patients
  • People are able to recall important words for conversations, activities
  • Woman can once again name tulips and daffodils in her garden, man can command his border collie on his sheep farm and order at Steak 'n Shake

CHICAGO --- A novel telemedicine speech therapy program for people with language problems due to dementia significantly improved their ability to recall words they had "lost," reports a new Northwestern Medicine study.

One woman could once again identify the tulips and daffodils in her garden. And a man restored his ability to issue commands to his border collie to herd the sheep on his farm and order his favorite meal from the drive-through at Steak 'n Shake.

People with Alzheimer's dementia or primary progressive aphasia often have language problems, struggling to retrieve the name of a grandchild or find the words to order dinner in a restaurant.

But their aphasia often goes untreated because most speech-language pathologists are trained to help children or individuals with stroke, not those with dementia.

Northwestern scientists are closing that gap by developing a new program - called the Communication Bridge -- in which specially trained speech-language pathologists offer personalized therapy over the web to those with dementia-related language impairment, also known as aphasia.

A new pilot study shows the participants made significant improvement in recalling the words they had found troublesome after two months of therapy, and maintained that improvement after six months.

One Colorado woman, after eight weeks of therapy and practice with virtual flashcards, could once again name the flowers in her garden and identify her golf swings. A woman from Alabama was able to retrieve the names of her grandchildren.

"These improvements are especially exciting because in neurodegenerative diseases we would expect declines, but these dementia patients are holding onto these gains," said lead author Emily Rogalski, associate professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The new study showing the feasibility and early results of the program is published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions.

"There's a misconception that speech-language pathologists can't help people with dementia, but, in fact, they have many tools that can be helpful," Rogalski said.

Individuals with dementia-related aphasia are able to learn, she noted.

"This is not a cure, but we may be able to delay some of the progression and maximize that person's remaining abilities so they can compensate as long as possible," Rogalski said.

The program starts with an evaluation to determine a person's challenges and strengths. Then it includes eight therapy sessions with a specialized speech pathologist via a secure video-chat platform, videos to reinforce what was taught during the sessions and home assignments like virtual flashcards and a communication notebook to support language memory.

"It doesn't matter where the patient lives or where the speech-language pathologist lives. You can get the same quality of care anywhere in the world," Rogalski said, noting the program just enrolled a person from Singapore.

The study participants included 31 individuals with early-to-mid-stage dementia from 21 states and Canada, and their care-partner. A care-partner - usually a spouse or family member - and the patient participate in the sessions together. Whether it's a couple who has been married for years or a parent and child, these pairs can learn effective communication strategies post-dementia diagnosis, Rogalski said.

Feedback from participants, caregivers and therapists about the Communication Bridge program was overwhelmingly positive, the authors report.

"A lot of people said they went from feeling like they had no control over their disease to feeling like were really fighting back and empowered," said speech-language pathologist Becky Khayum, a consultant who worked on the study. "They felt like they could more fully participate in life in spite of their disease."

"If you are an avid golfer and you want to talk to your golfing friends, it's frustrating to be an expert but not able to retrieve those related words as easily anymore because of the disease," Rogalski said. "The flashcards and strategies in this program are designed to help people retrieve those words again and maximize their daily lives. The goal is to help individuals engage in meaningful conversations and activities."

Some individuals might make a communication notebook with pictures and labels or write down a script and rehearse it.

"Maybe it's difficult for you to think of words, so you've avoided answering the phone or don't feel comfortable making doctor's appointments," Rogalski said. "We can create scripts that people practice over time so that they become more comfortable and confident in their conversations."

The program also helped participants read novels again, a pleasure some of them had lost to their disease, by simultaneously listening to the book on audio and reading it.

The Communication Bridge grew out of conversations with dementia patients and their families who traveled from around the country to the Northwestern clinic for evaluation and treatment. When they returned home, they were frustrated that they didn't have access to a specialized speech-language therapist.
-end-
The study is still enrolling participants. For more information visit http://www.brain.northwestern.edu/research/studies/

The research is supported by grants DC008552 from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, AG13854 from the National Institute on Aging and NS075075 from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, all of the National Institutes of Health. It was also supported by the Alzheimer's Association, The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration and Run4Papa.

Northwestern University

Related Dementia Articles:

Flies the key to studying the causes of dementia
A research team from the University of Plymouth, University of Southampton and the Alexander Fleming Biomedical Sciences Research Center, Vari, Greece, have studied two structurally-similar proteins in the adult brain and have found that they play distinct roles in the development of dementia.
Stroke prevention may also reduce dementia
Ontario's stroke prevention strategy appears to have had an unexpected, beneficial side effect: a reduction also in the incidence of dementia among older seniors.
Dementia: The right to rehabilitation
Rehabilitation is important for people with dementia as it is for people with physical disabilities, according to a leading dementia expert.
One in 4 elderly Australian women have dementia
At least a quarter of Australian women over 70 will develop dementia according to University of Queensland researchers.
Rural dementia -- we need to talk
Research carried out by Plymouth University into the experience of dementia in farming and farming families, and its impact on their businesses and home lives, has identified four areas of concern which need to be addressed if dementia in the countryside is to be managed.
Women with dementia receive less medical attention
Women with dementia have fewer visits to the GP, receive less health monitoring and take more potentially harmful medication than men with dementia, new UCL research reveals.
Dementia on the downslide, especially among people with more education
In a hopeful sign for the health of the nation's brains, the percentage of American seniors with dementia is dropping, a new study finds.
New study suggests rethink of dementia causes
University of Adelaide researchers have developed a new theory for the causes of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases, involving an out-of-control immune system.
Bleeding stroke associated with onset of dementia
Bleeding within the brain, or intracerebral hemorrhage, was associated with a high risk of developing dementia post stroke, according to research presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference 2016.
Dementia: New insights into causes of loss of orientation
The University of Exeter Medical School led two studies, each of which moves us a step closer to understanding the onset of dementia, and potentially to paving the way for future therapies.

Related Dementia Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Bias And Perception
How does bias distort our thinking, our listening, our beliefs... and even our search results? How can we fight it? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas about the unconscious biases that shape us. Guests include writer and broadcaster Yassmin Abdel-Magied, climatologist J. Marshall Shepherd, journalist Andreas Ekström, and experimental psychologist Tony Salvador.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#513 Dinosaur Tails
This week: dinosaurs! We're discussing dinosaur tails, bipedalism, paleontology public outreach, dinosaur MOOCs, and other neat dinosaur related things with Dr. Scott Persons from the University of Alberta, who is also the author of the book "Dinosaurs of the Alberta Badlands".