Intense Aphasia Boot Camp Helps Language Skills of Stroke Survivors in St. Louis Area

By Munz, Michele | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 24, 2016 | Go to article overview

Intense Aphasia Boot Camp Helps Language Skills of Stroke Survivors in St. Louis Area


Munz, Michele, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Nearly every weekday for a six-week summer boot camp, they meet for group therapy in a classroom at Fontbonne University. They all suffer with aphasia. A stroke has limited their ability to communicate their thoughts, find the right words, read or write.

Each week has a theme, such as current events, entertainment, or health and wellness. At one recent meeting, the group played a "Jeopardy!"-like trivia game. Olympics was as one of the categories.

Unlike real "Jeopardy!", they could help one another figure out the answers. Aphasia doesn't impair one's intelligence, and this is a smart bunch. There's a young former Marine, a retired college professor, software developer, nurse, mechanical engineer, accountant and journalist.

Nancy Evans, 64, of Glendale, gets a question, "What are the colors of the Olympic rings?" Evans draws the five rings on a piece of paper, which helps her. "Yellow, blue, green, red ," she said before turning to the group. "What do you all think?"

Another person offered a guess,"black," and Evans went with it. The answer on the screen revealed their collective effort was correct. The whole room cheered.

The Aphasia Boot Camp is offeredeach summer by the university's communication disorders department. It started as a two-week test project in 2013 and quickly expanded to include hour-long group therapy sessions that meet four days a week for six weeks, with individual sessions meeting before or after.

Language skills lost during a stroke can rarely be fully restored, so insurance typically covers the cost of speech therapy often just a couple of hours a week up until the person's progress slows or plateaus. But recent research shows that instead of quitting, bouts of intense therapy over a short period of time can help people continue to make gains.

"In the past, we would say, 'That's it, this is what you are going to be,'" said Carmen Russell, chair of the communication disorders department. "But actually, that is the time to ramp up therapy instead of ceasing it."

But not too much.About 12hours a week for six weeks seems to be the "sweet spot," Russell said.

Amanda Alton, the Fontbonne instructor and licensed therapist overseeing the boot camp, likens the possible gains to growth spurts in children.

"I have some clients 10 to15 years post-stroke, and they are still making improvements," Alton said. "The idea that recovery is over 10 to 12 months after a stroke is just not the case."

SOCIAL ISOLATION

The boot camp is staffed with graduate students completing their clinical work under Alton's supervision, so it's free of charge to participants. The Employees Community Fund of Boeing St. Louis also donated $7,500 to the program this summer.

It is the only intensive program for aphasia in the St. Louis region, Russell says. The closest is the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which is looked to as a model. Approximately 1 million people in the U.S. are affected with aphasia, typically caused by stroke or brain injury.

In addition to the intensity, what also makes the approach unique is the group therapy, where participants must research, discuss and prepare presentations on different topics.

"One of the most devastating effects of aphasia is social isolation," Russell explains. Aphasia patients tend to let their spouse do all the talking, withdraw to their homes, become lonely and depressed. …

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