The Role of the Speech-Language Pathologist in Treatment for Dementia
By Jennifer A. Zeien, MS/CCC-SLP
The rising number of older adults in the United States has countless implications for American society. While advances in medical technology have increased life expectancy, the subsequent increase in dementia has posed new challenges for health care institutions, policy makers, communities, and governments. This increasingly critical issue requires consideration and planning at many levels of society. Systematic evaluation, through multiple professional disciplines, is required to develop effective solutions.
Among rehabilitation professionals that serve people with dementia, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) address the communication impairments that accompany this disease. Communication therapy takes many forms. Therapy can focus solely on the individual or can include those who interact with the individual on a regular basis. It can address many of the communication problems associated with dementia, such as long-term or short-term memory, orientation, cognition, or quality of interaction.
Individuals outside of the health care professions may be surprised to learn that SLPs working in medical settings often provide services targeting communication for individuals with dementia. While there’s some disagreement in the field regarding what that intervention should look like, there’s a general consensus that speech therapy can be useful to educate patients, caregivers, and families on the course of dementia, its impact on communication and cognition, and strategies to improve communication.
Research has shown that direct therapy intervention, such as memory exercises, is not effective; however, indirect intervention, such as education, advocacy, and counseling are all within the scope of practice for the SLP and are supported by research as evidence-based practice.
Individuals with dementia and their loved ones can benefit from being encouraged to reach out to SLPs to be considered for intervention, with the expectation that the purpose is not to reverse or stop the loss of memory but instead to improve the understanding of the disease process and how to manage changes in communication and cognition through strategies and support. For individuals living at home, this service can be available through home health or outpatient services. For those living in long term care facilities, the service is typically provided by an in-house or contract SLP.
To learn more about meaningful dementia intervention through speech therapy, refer to research and resources from leading SLPs such as Michelle Bourgeois, PhD/CCC-SLP; Sarah Baar, MA/CCC-SLP; Jennifer Brush, MA/CCC-SLP; and Tammy Hopper, PhD, MS, BA. For additional information on dementia and the role of the SLP, visit the website for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) at https://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/dementia/.
— Jennifer A. Zeien, MS/CCC-SLP