Three weekends ago, I was at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Two weekends ago, I was at Shepherd's Harvest in Minnesota. I flew back from Shepherd's Harvest not certain whether I would go immediately from the arrival gate to a departure for Seattle; my mother had a stroke just before I left on the Minnesota trip, and we were monitoring the situation closely on a daily basis throughout the family. (Note: There are no direct Minneapolis-to-Seattle flights on United. When checking options, I learned that to get to Seattle as soon as the festival was over I would have had to return to Denver on my regularly scheduled flight and then catch a plane for Washington.)
As it turned out, I went home for four days to do laundry and bills, and to re-pack my suitcase. (During that time, the Hewlett Fire erupted in the mountains nearby, and we all were tracking that as well, taking action and preparing refuge for human friends and animals in the fire's vicinity. It's been way too exciting around here.)
On my mother's 88th birthday, I flew to Seattle to lend a hand as well as I could, and to learn about things like aphasia, as well as apraxia of speech, which Mom's stroke has caused. The ability to communicate, through speech, writing, and other means, plays a normally invisible and absolutely crucial role in every other aspect of living. We didn't mention her birthday to her. Despite my arrival, which got a smile out of her, that day wasn't so great. We gave her the cards a couple of days later, when things were, at least for the moment, looking a bit better.
Aphasia is neurological damage affecting language functions, including speech. Apraxia of speech is a type of speech disorder in which the brain knows what it wants to say yet the muscles can't translate those ideas into forms that other people can understand. It's not muscle weakness. It's like the muscles have lost known skills. The brain knows the ability should be there, and the means of articulation don't cooperate.
It's incredibly frustrating for everyone. Watching Mom attempt to speak is like watching someone in a swimming pool try to capture brightly colored balloons that skid away across the water's surface just as they come within reach.
She can hear and understand what we say, and can nod "yes" or "no" in response to questions. My sister is much better than I am at thinking of questions to ask that will yield useful information. Then again, my sister's full-time work in the public school system involves teaching autistic (and other) kids about movement and dance.
I have an unusual amount of experience with communication issues posed by neurological and psychological challenges. I've dealt with situational muteness. I'm good at thinking of alternative modes of communication. Most of the ideas I could come up with this time didn't work.
Mom can't write. We're not sure about reading, although she enjoyed having me read to her (Erma Bombeck's newspaper columns worked well: good lengths, good topics, and mostly humorous; when she's feeling okay, Mom's sense of humor and of the absurd appears to be intact). My sister read to her the previous week, and my niece, who had flown in to help and left the day I arrived, brought Mom some music.
We're working on how to get more music to Mom. She doesn't seem any more interested in television than I am, yet operating electronic devices that might play music is a bit beyond what she can do. The speech-and-language therapist says Mom is 100 percent accurate in responding to one-stage requests. ("Touch your nose.") Her accuracy drops somewhat when the requests move to two-stage sequences ("Touch your nose and then touch your ear."). I don't recall the percentages exactly, but I think at that level she varies between 70 and 90 percent accuracy. That's not bad for a short time post-stroke, but so far we can't think of a music-playing device that would be familiar to her, and operating a new-to-her option would require her to learn a sequence of actions. Since her energy is limited, we think she would be better off spending it in reinvigorating her how-to-talk skills. But it would be great if she had some music, and could control it. Rehab can be a really boring existence when your non-therapy alternatives are so limited.
In trying to decipher Mom's utterances when she was working on communicating verbally, I was hampered by the amount of noise in most of the spaces where we were located—it's a rehab facility, and in the daytime there's a whole lot going on. Mom's articulation isn't clear and she can't vocalize very loudly. On one day, it was sunny and we went outside into a courtyard and that was delightful. The next day it began raining, a situation that continued for the rest of my visit; the precipitation was good, but the limited access to quiet space was not.
On the occasions where all of us (especially Mom) managed to muster enough patience to slow down and make our way through a whole sentence, Mom was able to convey quite complex ideas. The high point in my week came when I guessed the word "niche" and got a strong affirmative nod from her. "Niche" is a really hard word to speak or interpret!
Right now, it's hard to tell what sorts of recovery the rehab therapies may accomplish. The aphasia and the apraxia of speech are not the only things Mom's dealing with, but they are the core issues. Mom's doing physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-and-language therapy. At the evaluation and treatment planning session we all participated in on Monday, the overall opinion was that she may be able to regain nearly all of the independent skills she has currently lost. (I learned that ADLs are activities of daily living, the benchmarks for independence.) But her success will depend on a few things that we can influence, as well as many things over which we have no control at all. It's one day at a time.
And we will do everything we can to support her.
This is why.
It's impossible to tell what will be needed in the family constellation over the next few weeks or months. My sister and brother-in-law are handling the great bulk of details and visits and paperwork, due to their proximity. The rest of us are doing everything we can, either from a distance or by showing up in person.
One day at a time. One step at a time. One word at a time.