“Who put the kick in the chicken?” Patty repeatedly asked her tablemates, over a lunch of tuna salad. They tried hard to figure out what she meant, with no luck. Patty’s frustration mounted. “WHO PUT THE KICK IN THE CHICKEN?” No one knew. Patty has anomic aphasia.
Aphasia is a communication disorder that affects speech but not necessarily intellect. As one speech pathologist put it, aphasia is a language impairment, not a thinking impairment. It’s the result of disease or brain injury, frequently a stroke.
My listeners often recognize an old song but can’t remember any of the words. That’s not aphasia. That’s just aging.
And there are “senior moments” for all of us, when we can’t think of a name or a word we’ve always known. Then later—minutes, hours, even days—our brain suddenly supplies the missing item. It once took me a year to come up with the word “fixtures” to collectively describe the sink, faucet, etc. found in a bathroom. What a relief when the word finally surfaced. Those temporary lapses, though annoying, are also not aphasia.
In my first blog post back in 2013, I wrote about a listener named Betty, who removed her earring and held it out to me. “Can you play this?” she asked. At the time, I thought her unusual request resulted from dementia. Looking back, I wonder if aphasia also had a role.
Many people with aphasia can still sing, even when they’ve lost the ability to speak. A couple of years ago while I played in the lobby of an assisted-living facility, aides parked Josie, a sweet woman in a wheelchair, next to me. For the next hour, Josie “sang” every song, substituting “dee-dee-dee” for the lyrics. Her voice matched the melody and she seldom sang in the spaces, so I think she actually knew the songs, and quite possibly the real words, but just could not say them. Josie might be an example of a person with global aphasia.
Another day, as I made my way out after a performance, a woman from the audience reached out to me. I stopped, she clasped my hand and said, over and over, “Fine, fine, fine, fine.” Perhaps she had Broca’s aphasia, also called “non-fluent aphasia” or “expressive aphasia.” Nevertheless, she was able to communicate her appreciation in a way I had no trouble understanding.
Back at Patty’s table, next to the piano, conversation continued:
Patty: “I keep those songs in my inner sanctum.”
Phyllis: “Where’s that?”
I couldn’t resist looking. Patty pointed to her head. “Right here.”
So far Patty’s aphasia is mild. Sometimes her odd word substitutions puzzle the other three patient, kind women who share her lunch table. But that time, they all nodded. She got it exactly right.
Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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