Living language in Covid times

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It’s Dementia Awareness Week 2020 and what a difference a year makes.  ‘Unprecedented’ seems to be the word of the year so far. Isn’t it incredible that last year at this time we wouldn’t recognise the word ‘Covid-19’ or Coronavirus? There have been many new words added to our vocabulary in past three months – ‘furlough’, ‘pandemic’ and ‘anosmia’ to name a few.  The impact can’t be underestimated, leading psychologist Amy Cuddy to tweet today: ‘2020- when asking ‘How are you?’ is no longer a rhetorical question’.  With my speech and language therapy (SLT) hat on, I’m interested in how we’ve managed with this ‘new normal’ of maximum information every single day.  How has it been for you?

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Assessing comprehension and understanding language is a big part of the daily job of SLT.  We look for patterns of deficit and, more importantly, we identify strengths that might balance out newly-acquired weakness in communication.  Things are changing so quickly in daily life at the moment that I’ve struggled sometimes to keep up. Sometimes I wonder if I need a comprehension assessment myself.  I’m aware of squinting at the TV political daily briefings to help me to take it all in.  I’ve been known to rewind and repeat segments of governmental advice multiple times as it was so novel.   I also notice that if I feel tired or stressed, the information I was listening to was more difficult to access and hold onto.

There’s a message there for me in appreciating how it feels to struggle to keep up or to have language disability (aphasia).  I’ve needed all Covid-19 guidance in small chunks and I’ve needed to hear it a number of times in a variety of different ways.  Sometimes I’ve required a chart or a graph to support what I can’t take in verbally.  Certain people I’ve noticed are easier to understand than others and that might be related to the speed of their delivery or how often they pause, fill silences with ‘ums and ers’ or get straight to the point.   A gesture to underline a key point has been very helpful – some people have used their hands well to highlight the important bit of the message.

Out in my community I’ve needed to follow clear signage to help me negotiate my way round Tesco for the weekly shop.  I’ve found it daunting and overwhelming sometimes – a fear of ‘getting it wrong’. Out on daily exercise, I’ve noticed some people offering eye contact and smiling as they cross the road to maintain social distance.  Equally I’ve noticed the people who don’t and try to smile at them regardless.

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Work and social life is now entirely via a screen.  My teenage daughter carries her 4 friends around in the palm of her hand.  It’s a comfort to have them with her on her phone but she’d rather see them and have a real sleepover than a virtual one.  It makes me reflect on care homes and visiting via a screen.  As human beings, we need to touch and feel and connect.  Finding clear ways to explain this ‘new normal’ to people with later stages of dementia takes skill, compassion and gentle repetition.

I’m sure we’ve all felt the highs and lows that 2020 has bestowed upon us.  I’m left reflecting on how I manage new information and the things that help and hinder how much I understand.  I reflect even more now on the power of non-verbal communication to comfort and soothe.  More than anything else I’ve realised all the ways we can convey kindness and how best to support each other.  Give ourselves and each other more time, repeat and rephrase, support with a gesture or visual clue and offer eye contact and facial expression with gentle care.  Above all, find kindness and show it.  Daily.

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Jenny Keir

Specialist Speech & Language Therapist, NHS Tayside


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