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We need to improve communication access for the elderly: opinion

As a community, we must do better to acknowledge communication disability and the impacts it has on quality of life and take action to improve the situation, writes Gaenor Dixon.

Jane* is 86-years-old and over the last few years her hearing and speech have significantly deteriorated.

She lives in a Melbourne aged care facility where most of the other residents are deaf or near-deaf, which makes conversation difficult. To complicate matters further, Jane has trouble speaking clearly and loudly, which makes it near impossible for her to talk to other residents unassisted.

It wasn’t until speech pathologist Christine* fitted Jane with speech amplifier that Jane was finally able to have a conversation with her friend, a woman with a hearing impairment she had been sitting next to in the dining room for years.

Gaenor Dixon

Unfortunately, Jane’s story is not uncommon. In Australia, 95 per cent of people living in residential aged care have at least one communication impairment, which often results in social isolation, loneliness and a poorer quality of life.

For most residents, a communication disability is usually accompanied by or the result of conditions such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease. For instance, 50 per cent of people with dementia experience communication difficulties, as do 85 per cent of those with Parkinson’s disease.

On the surface, overcoming these problems appears insurmountable. And while there may not be a cure for either condition, enhancing people’s quality of life by giving them back their ability to communicate is something that can be done relatively easily, and with great rewards.

Speech pathologists are trained to help people communicate. And to correct a common misunderstanding, they don’t just work with people who have problems speaking. Speech pathologists are skilled in helping people who have difficulties with speaking, listening, hearing, understanding, reading, writing and using their voice and body language in a range of social situations.

In the context of residential aged care, speech pathologists can help residents directly by giving them strategies and advice on using devices, such as hearing aids, to facilitate easier communication.

They can also train staff to simplify what they’re saying and give staff tips on how to position themselves so that hard-of hearing residents can see them more easily and use objects to help support comprehension for people with dementia, such as holding up a tea cup when asking a residents if they want a cup of tea.

As a community, we must do better to acknowledge communication disability and the impacts it has on the quality of life. Often, it seems that because a communication disability is not as visible, it’s less worthy of our attention.

The reality is, being able to communicate is a fundamental human right. People in aged care are already facing significant health battles, many of which are incurable. Let’s make sure we focus on improving the one thing we can support and give them back some joy in being able to communicate and socialise with others

Gaenor Dixon is the national president of Speech Pathology Australia.

Speech Pathology Week runs from 19-25 August. *Not their real names. 

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