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For People with Aphasia, the Pandemic’s Isolation Is Nothing New

Illustration of a man in a wheelchair pointing at a magazine
Illustration of a man in a wheelchair pointing at a magazine
Image courtesy of the Aphasia Institute.
Dr. Aura Kagan

Aura Kagan PhD

Executive Director & Director of Applied Research and Education, The Aphasia Institute

Many people are feeling isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, imagine sheltering in place without being able to communicate with your friends and family — this is reality for the thousands of Canadians who live with aphasia.

The COVID-19 pandemic experience of sheltering in place and feeling isolated is a daily reality for thousands of Canadians living with aphasia— a language problem most frequently caused by stroke, but that can also result from infections, tumours, accidents, or progressive neurological diseases.

Imagine being parachuted into a country where you don’t speak the language. You’re “you” inside and you know what you want to say,  but you aren’t able to communicate by speaking or writing, and you have difficulty understanding others when they speak or write. Even a computer would be useless. This is what severe aphasia is like. It can, of course, be less severe — comparable, for example, to if you were proficient at a very basic level in another language but not able to understand when people speak fast, or phrases that are more abstract.

Why aphasia is devastating

Social isolation comes with the territory of aphasia, all day, every day — COVID-19 or not. While extended family and friends are often there to provide support at first, these social connections tend to dry up completely when people find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of being unable to engage in a conversation. And the impact is devastating because aphasia masks inherent competence.

Keeping connected with others via phone and online via email or virtual platforms such as Zoom has been a lifeline for most of us — but for someone with aphasia who is faced with difficulties in speaking, understanding, reading, and writing, there is no such lifeline and distancing in the times of COVID-19 has serious implications for social isolation.

People with aphasia have something to teach us all about appreciating the gift of language and human conversation. So, when you’re frustrated at being at home and sick of Zoom calls, spare a thought for those who can’t connect at all. There are interventions that make all the difference so help spread awareness about aphasia, and the fact that this neglected population deserves support and funding.

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