Speech Therapy and Alzheimer's Disease: What is the Role?
Last updated: April 2023
When you or your loved one is first diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, you may be given a list of suggested therapies for them: physical, occupational, and speech. Speech therapy?! "Isn't that for children who are in school?" you may think to yourself. And you would be right.
It's true that most individuals associate speech therapy with grade school; learning "how to talk" and practicing making certain speech sounds but speech therapy is available for adults as well.
The role of speech therapy in Alzheimer's
As a speech-language pathologist myself, I am usually giving the "scoop" on speech therapy for adults with family members and friends but now I get to share it with you!
A certified speech-language pathologist can provide services targeting communication and swallowing. Communication is a rather broad word so let's break it down.
What is communication?
Communication includes language, cognition, voice, fluency, and hearing. Adults can receive speech therapy following a stroke, traumatic brain injury, and diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, frontotemporal dementia, and more, in addition to other health-related complications.
The target in Alzheimer's
Speech therapy for an individual with Alzheimer's will typically target language and cognitive skills. It is well known that Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disease with no cure. This means that those therapy sessions will most likely focus on maintaining the skills of the individual.
A speech therapist can provide strategies to help with "finding their words," certain cognitive tasks like following directions with one or more steps, and as the disease progresses, ways to assist with eating and swallowing food safely. The overall goal of therapy is to help the person be as independent as possible for as long as possible.
What are areas that speech therapy targets?
I was a primary caregiver for my Dad and I was constantly wracking my brain for ways to keep him engaged and independent throughout his illness. I always tried to find ways to work on language and cognitive skills when we did activities together. Here are some areas a speech therapist may work on during a session.
As Alzheimer's disease progresses, your loved one will have difficulty both understanding what is being said to them as well as expressing themselves. This was extremely difficult to watch my Dad go through, particularly when he became visibly frustrated trying to figure out what he wanted to say.
The speech therapist can offer suggestions to the individual like using pictures or written words to help communicate. As well as educate caregivers on how to best communicate with their loved ones.
There are many aspects of cognition that a speech therapist can work on. For instance, an individual with Alzheimer's may need help with problem-solving, maintaining attention (particularly during conversation), and memory. A joint activity that may be suggested to both the caregiver and individual like creating a "memory book" to look at.
The speech therapist's role in eating, drinking, and swallowing is not as well known as their job in helping with speech sounds.
Towards the end stages of the disease, it may become challenging for the individual to chew and swallow their food. The muscles and mechanisms in the throat that protect a person's airway will not function the same way they do in a healthy person which could cause them to choke.
Letting even the tiniest bit of food or liquid get into your lungs can cause major health complications like aspiration pneumonia. A speech therapist can provide strategies to help the individual safely eat and drink.
No, this is not counseling in the traditional sense.
A speech therapist can provide informative counseling which serves to educate the individual and their families about the disease. They can also provide counseling on how the new communication difficulties are impacting the person's day-to-day life.
I had a rough idea of what my family was getting into, communication-wise, but many do not, and a speech therapist is a fantastic source of information.
Starting speech therapy services
A speech therapist cannot diagnose Alzheimer's disease; only a medical doctor can. Once you have been given a diagnosis, check with your insurance or Medicaid to figure out what is covered and help to find a provider in your area.
If you have experience with Alzheimer's and speech therapy, please feel free to share your story in the comment section below, or share your story with the community.
Have you or your loved one been diagnosed with Mild cognitive impairment?