Recently I was offered a part-time job helping a friend’s mother regain her speech following a stroke. I really, really like this woman and her mother and I am actually looking forward to helping them both get through this. Yesterday I tagged along to a hospital appointment with the speech therapist and I was struck by my friend’s energy and good humor as she guided her mother through her exercises. She has been taking her mother to appointments in the evenings and doing this alone for months after working long and physically and mentally exhausting days and seeing her teaching her elderly mother how to speak again nearly broke my heart.
My friend’s mother was a teacher in her previous life and apparently they used to play word-association games in the car during road trips, the kind of “games” that seem to be the playground of the generationally literate, the kind of wordplay I was never able to do or even care about to save my own life. I can tell that her mother is still very much “there” and that she just has trouble grasping and uttering the correct words (she asked me how to spell my name and after that she did not forget or stumble with it again). Apparently, the mother was initially extremely frustrated at her speech limitations and fought against the stress and exertion (and compounding failures) of her speech exercises but has since calmed down a bit; she does her homework and participates in her exercises without much complaint. My friend told me they try to have fun with it and they end up laughing a lot. I’m glad she told me that explicitly — that they were deliberately trying to make it fun — because that is not a tack I would’ve known to take as I find the whole thing very unsettling in the vein of Dworkin and her comments on female old age and how that plays out under late stage capitalism and patriarchy. I’m glad they had me go once as an observer to see how it’s all supposed to work. Of course, after observing for a bit I had a question.
In my isolated, sick and medicated state, while I can still write and watch videos (and read in moderation) I actually think my own speech and memory skills have begun to fail. My friend and the speech therapist were running my friend’s mother through word association and “priming” exercises which went something like this: “Watermelon, fire truck, camping, blood, starfish. Which of these things are red?” I should mention that she also lost a lot of her eyesight in the stroke so she can’t look at the list, or refer back to it, she just has to remember the list as it’s being read aloud and then only afterwards is given the “category” she is supposed to be sorting them into (e.g. things that are red). Considering her circumstances she does remarkably well at remembering the list when I myself was having a difficult time remembering the items and then sorting them after the fact.
The way it played out in practice made it completely clear to me that if she can’t remember the list, they are going to think her troubled response is a speech-related problem and not a memory-related one. And although I had a feeling this outcome was unintentional, I didn’t know for sure or whether it mattered because the policy/intent behind speech therapy in her case had not been explained to me. For an elderly woman who has just had a stroke, this seemed needlessly cumbersome, not to mention cruel and unfair, assuming the exercises were not intended to include the obvious memory challenge that was baked-into doing it that way.