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The role of speech pathology in aged care

Last Updated at October 7th 2021
Speech pathology is becoming more important in aged care facilities and aged care related services to help individuals who have difficulty speaking, listening, understanding language, reading and writing, social skills and issues swallowing food and drink safely.

Key points:

  • Speech pathologists can assist older people in aged care to have a better quality of life

  • Swallowing and eating problems can impact aged care residents and speech pathology can be used to overcome this

  • A majority of older residents in aged care experience some sort of communication difficulties

Older person experiencing dysphagia
Speech pathologists can help with many conditions that affect older people, like dysphagia, aphasia, or communication issues. [Source: Shutterstock]

Older people sometimes lose their communication abilities when they develop dementia, if they have increasing hearing loss, a disability in some form, or experience a stroke or brain injury.

Speech pathology is also used to treat dysphagia - losing the ability to swallow food and drink - which is a common side effect of dementia and Parkinson’s disease in residents at aged care facilities.

Speech pathologists

Speech pathologists are able to provide a service to help improve the quality of life of a person that has developed a swallowing issue or communication problem.

For people that develop communication issues, whether over time or through an illness, a speech pathologist can provide an assessment and therapy to the individual.

The professional would also be able to create strategies to get around problems when communication is necessary. This can include making signs for people with communication difficulties, ensuring the environment allows for good communication like face to face conversation in quiet areas, or recognising non-verbal conversation cues.

An older person developing dysphagia can be a serious issue that needs to be assessed by a speech pathologist.

They will provide advice on swallowing and how to assist that person with dysphagia in eating safely.

Generally, the pathologist will build a care plan for the resident with dysphagia, which would include modifying foods or fluids, provide safe swallowing strategies, and take into account the cognitive status and level of independence of the person.

Speech pathologists also teach aged care staff about best communication practices for residents or dysphagia strategies.

Communication

Being able to communicate effectively can be harder as you age, as health conditions can get in the way.

Losing your hearing, ability to see, read or write, and the ability to speak can be an incredibly difficult issue to manage, especially if you are in a residential aged care facility.

Many people don't realise that hearing loss is a communication disability, and a lot of people over 65 will experience some form of hearing loss.

Having a stroke or developing Parkinson’s disease or dementia can be other reasons there is a loss of communication skills.

Aphasia is one such brain injury-induced condition, which is an impairment in language comprehension, including speech, reading or writing, and can develop due to an injury in the brain like a stroke.

Nearly 96 percent of older people in Australian residential aged care facilities have developed a communication disorder in some form.

Communication is an important aspect of everyday life and can have a big impact on an individual’s quality of life. Not being able to express yourself can be very frustrating and may result in mood swings, depression and anxiety.

In people with dementia, behavioural changes can be due to frustrations of them being unable to communicate their problems. For instance, aggression or biting at a toothbrush could be because they have a cavity or mouth ulcer and it hurts to brush their teeth.

If you are living in aged care and are struggling to communicate with staff, then a speech pathologist can also help organise a path to clear communication.

Dysphagia

When a person loses the ability to swallow it can lead to more than just health issues, it is also a loss of normal everyday life.

Eating and drinking is such an important part of the human experience. A swallowing problem can have a huge effect on the nutrition intake and quality of life of an older person in aged care.

Speech Pathology Australia says dysphagia affects 50 percent of residents in residential aged care facilities and 50 percent of people with dementia.

While dysphagia can occur at any age, it can be a serious problem for an older person who becomes more susceptible to choking.

It can affect swallowing, drinking, sucking, chewing, eating, controlling saliva, taking medication, or stopping food and drink from going into the lungs.

Dysphagia also means a person may lose the ability to close their lips, effectively not being able to keep food, liquid or saliva in their mouth.

Generally, the first sign of dysphagia can be noticed when an older person begins coughing, gagging or choking while consuming food and drink.

Swallowing issues can also lead to other health problems, like lung infections, dehydration, malnutrition, and an increased likelihood of going to hospital.

In some cases, it can be fatal, with the possibility of choking on food.

Dysphagia issues can also lead to mental health issues, like anxiety, depression and social isolation.

Speech pathologists work with residents experiencing dysphagia and put in place strategies to assist with safe swallowing and changing to a diet plan that allows for safe and tasty food consumption.

Have you had help from a speech pathologist before? Tell us in the comments below.

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The importance of elderly nutrition
Hydration for elderly people and the dangers of dehydration
The benefits of pet therapy
Dementia behaviour changes and challenges

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