Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Learning to talk again

Imagine what it must feel like to wake up in hospital after a stroke.
Depending on the severity, the effects can be life-changing.
For many people it can result in paralysis and other mobility problems
that can leave them wheelchair-bound. However perhaps even more
disabling can be the loss of speech. Their main method of
communication is suddenly lost.
Now 76, Carlisle pensioner Margaret Gebbie suffered a stroke 17 years
ago. Her speech was badly affected, and with it her confidence. She
would stay in the house, unable to go into town or meet up with
friends for fear of being unable to communicate.
However Margaret is proof that what has been cruelly snatched away by
a stroke can be rekindled, though it requires a lot of determination.
With help from the ‘Say It’ group, she has gradually been teaching her
brain how to speak again. The weekly support group, which holds
sessions in Carlisle, Penrith and Wigton, is run by trained speech
therapists, supported by an army of dedicated volunteers.
She attends the Carlisle group, which meets at Burnside Court in
Stanwix. Each session includes a combination of group discussions and
pair work, all designed to encourage conversation and help people
relearn what they used to take for granted.
Margaret is one of the longest-serving group members, having now been
attending for over 10 years. In that time her speech has been
“I took ill in the September, just before I was due to retire,” she
remembers. “My speech was really bad. It did change my life. Before
that I used to go out a lot but I stopped because I couldn’t speak. I
couldn’t speak at all for about two years.
“But I’ve come here and I’ve learnt. I learn every time I come. You
just have to keep trying, it makes a big difference. Now I can go up
street by myself, I don’t worry about anything. I used to be
frightened but now I’m not,” she says.
As part of a national Giving Voice campaign, the Cumbria Partnership
NHS Foundation Trust is promoting the work of the county’s speech
therapists. Together they help a wide range of people address
communication problems, from children who suffer from a stammer to
adults like Margaret who have lost their power of speech after a


In total, Cumbria’s speech and language therapists deal with 34,000
appointments every year. Funded by the Cumbria Partnership, the Say It
group is a great example of what they can achieve. Coordinator Sylvia
Walton explains that it started life 20 years ago, initially supported
by a local stroke charity and more recently by the local health trust.
As well as stroke patients they also help those recovering from a wide
variety of head injuries.
On top of the weekly support groups, the Say It service also offers
one-to-one home support to those who are either not ready for the
group or have more specific needs.
But she says the group is hugely beneficial as it also doubles up as a
social event.
“When people have a communication problem they become quite isolated.
Here, as well as therapy, they also get to meet people who are in the
same boat. They can practice their speech in a safe environment and
get to know new people,” she explains.
Anna Cooke started out as a volunteer when she was a student and has
gone on to qualify as a stroke specialist speech therapist. Although
based at the Cumberland Infirmary’s stroke unit, her ties to the group
are as strong as ever. “Generally speaking, people who come here have
usually been in hospital, though they are all at different stages. For
some people as soon as they go home the group is appropriate, for
others it’s not.”
Sylvia adds: “It’s very much tailored to what each individual wants and needs.”
At each session she puts people into groups of varying sizes, often
with a volunteer, and gives them tasks, quizzes or other ideas to
stimulate conversation and trigger new vocabulary. Depending on how
good their speech has become they are also encouraged to use other
methods, from hand signals to writing, to get their message across.
“People make a bigger effort to try and say something here because
people understand. They are going through the same thing,” says
Sylvia, who also organises social events for members.
Anna adds: “People are more accepting here so it really helps build
confidence. It’s actually sometimes a bridge to getting them back into
their existing social networks.
“It can be daunting, but they can come here for a while, gain speaking
skills and confidence, then go back to the groups they were already
Group members range in age from 30 to over 80 and some come for a few
months, while others are still benefiting several years later. Anna
says it is also nice to see the longer serving members helping new
faces and feeling like they are giving something back.
In the last few weeks Ross Millar has started attending the group. The
38-year-old, who lives in Carlisle with his partner, suffered a stroke
that has severely affected his speech. He can say some words but also
uses actions, writing and drawing to illustrate what he wants to say.
Asked what it was like to suddenly find himself without a voice, he
simply shakes his head and holds it in his hands – a gesture that says
more than a thousand words. However he says the group “is good” and he
enjoyed a recent 10-pin bowls night they held.
To help him build his speech, Sylvia encourages him to talk about his
plans to start an allotment – saying that finding a subject that
interests an individual is key. He draws diagrams of allotments and
uses seed packets to talk about what he would plant.
He is helped by others in the group, including 83-year-old Pauline
Anderson, who remembers all too well what it was like to be in his
position. It is exactly a year ago that the retired secretary, from
Houghton, suffered a stroke. Although she knew what she wanted to say
in her head, the injury to her brain meant she was unable to translate
“It was horrible. The wrong words would come out,” she remembers.
Although she knew what a kettle was, she just couldn’t find its name
in her vocabulary – and the same applied to most everyday words and
phrases. “It was so frustrating and I would get quite mad at myself,”
she says. But her husband and children were determined to help. They
put labels around the house to help her relearn the words she had
She would practice them over and over again until they eventually
started to stick. “You’ve got to do it. You can’t not, all the time
you have to try. Even now I can be talking to someone and I lose my
thread. But it has been good coming to the group, we all help each
Her husband Bill has seen a big improvement. “It’s been most
beneficial and her confidence is coming back. It’s been slow but she’s
getting there now.”

By Pam McGowan
Courtesy of Evening News and Star

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