Aphasia strikes at communication skills, often after stroke
The 89-year-old former language teacher has aphasia, a medical condition that, in a particularly cruel irony in her case, impairs the expression and understanding of spoken language. Although not a disease, aphasia is a symptom of varying degrees of brain damage to the communication centers in the left side of the brain.
About 1 million Americans have aphasia, according to the National Aphasia Association, a patient advocacy group based in New York. Most of them, like Zemelka, develop the disorder after a stroke, but head trauma, brain infections, tumors and even some forms of dementia also can cause disruptions in these ordinary day-to-day communication skills, bringing tremendous isolation and loneliness in their wake.
“The social issues are devastating,” said Peter Zemelka, her son, who with his 90-year-old father, Stanley, provides 24-hour care for Magda in a small apartment overlooking the Banana River in Cape Canaveral. “Neighbors and friends simply stay away.”While there’s no cure for aphasia, patients can achieve a “new normal,” however, through intensive speech-language therapy, according to Janet Whiteside, director of the University of Central Florida’s Communications Disorder Clinic. “There are few instances of full recovery,” she said, “but patients can learn new ways to communicate.”
The university recently opened an Aphasia House, dedicated to treating patients with this disability, but the Zemelka family said it’s too far for her to travel and Medicare and other insurers cap reimbursement, making it costly as well.
“The intensive program UCF offers seems successful, but it’s too demanding for us,” said Stanley, a retired economics professor, referring to the program’s face-to-face therapy, four hours a day, four days a week. Not only is the drive to Orlando too taxing for his wife, he said, he believes she needs therapy in German, not English, because that was her childhood language.