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Speech Problems in the Elderly

When you imagine what an elderly person’s voice sounds like, you probably think of something quiet and wispy, maybe even a little hoarse. Just like other body parts that change with age - like eyesight and hearing - speech and the ability to communicate can also be affected by aging. In fact, speech problems in the elderly are more common than you may think.

Speech Difficulty in the Elderly

There are many reasons you may notice an elderly loved one losing the ability to speak. It could simply be a normal result of aging, as the muscles around the throat, face, jaw, and larynx weaken. Some other types of elderly speech impairment include:

  • Apraxia - Usually the result of some sort of traumatic brain injury, apraxia is a neurological condition that makes it difficult for a person to say what they want correctly

  • Dysarthria - Slurred or choppy speech, typically the result of weak muscles around the lips, tongue, vocal folds, face, or even diaphragm. It can be caused by brain-related injury or disorder or a muscle disorder like Parkinson’s or Multiple Sclerosis.

  • Injury to the throat or vocal cords due to polyps, throat cancer, other nodules, or even certain drugs and medications.

In worst-case scenarios, an elderly person may lose the ability to speak all together.

How to Communicate with Someone Who Can’t Talk

It is challenging and often uncomfortable to spend time with a person who can’t speak. The first and more important thing to remember in this situation is that your loved one can still hear and understand you, probably more than you think. Resist the urge to sit with them in silence or turn on the TV for background noise.

Someone who can’t speak already feels vulnerable and frustrated that they can’t get their wants and needs across to those around them. Have patience. Pay close attention to body language. Consider what you would appreciate if the situation were reversed. Also, remember the importance of human touch, and don’t be afraid to hold your loved one’s hand or give them a hug.

Communication for those who can’t speak is difficult but not impossible. In addition to general body language, you may be able to utilize American Sign Language to assist with communication. You could also try a whiteboard to write messages or use a photo set. An image or photo set allows the non-verbal person to point at images to express themselves. Even fancier electronic communication devices allow users to select a word or image, and the device reads them aloud for them.

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When someone can’t speak, communication can be difficult and exasperating for everyone involved. Remember to be patient, kind, and look for options that can help. As always, reach out to your doctor for assistance, as they may be able to determine the underlying causes of speech problems or prescribe speech therapy that can help.