Ellie writes about how a weekly conversation doesn’t work for everyone. Different people will need more breaks. In Ellie’s experience, her conversation partner needed a few weeks without any visits from her. After a break he was happy to continue.
I saw my CP as part of a scheme with my university, where I was supposed to see him weekly for 13 weeks. In the end, I saw him only six times. This is because he asked me to stop coming.
Initially this really knocked my confidence, I kept wondering if it was something I’d done. Perhaps he didn’t feel my visits were useful. Because my CP had very severe aphasia he wasn’t able to explain to me why he didn’t want me to come any more. He made it clear that he meant no offence, but through a long and very awkward conversation, he also made it clear that he didn’t want me to come back next week, or the week after that, or after that.
Then, four weeks after he had asked me not to come back, I got a phone call from my CP, and later one from a relative to clarify what he had been trying to say. The relative said he had had his break, and would like to start the conversation scheme with me again.
This came as a real shock to me, I had been so wrapped up in trying to work out what I had done wrong, and why he didn’t like me; I really hadn’t thought enough about his perspective. It hadn’t occurred to me that he just wanted a break, not a permanent end to the conversation partner scheme. I had fixated on what I had done wrong, not thinking enough about the fact that this is someone I see for one hour a week, I really don’t have the full picture of what else is happening in his life. This break in fact had nothing to do with how our sessions were going, but was because he had had a family problem, which was making it hard for him to concentrate.
So it’s important to always bear in mind that people can need breaks, the conversation scheme can be exhausting and the time frame of a session a week may not work for everyone. It’s not always a reflection on you as a conversation partner if this happens, and it’s important to check that the regularity of your chats suits everyone involved. Perhaps my CP would have preferred if our sessions had only been bi-weekly.
Always think about the person you are talking to holistically, there are issues outside of the room that may not come up in conversation but can be affecting their day; read their mood and react to it.
By Ellie Houlihan
Heidi tells of her Conversation Partner Brian and how he has learnt to draw using his left hand after a stoke left him paralysed on his right side. Through Heidi’s encouragement and Brian’s hard work he has produced some fantastic artwork which has been celebrated at exhibition.
Brian Davis, 79, celebrated an exhibition of his art work at Beach Creative Gallery, Herne Bay, during July.
After having a stroke four years ago, Brian has severe aphasia and cannot communicate verbally. Being completely paralysed on the right side of his body, he has had to learn to use his left hand to colour.
Heidi started to use drawings to support Brian’s understanding of language. This developed into an activity they could both do together. Brian enjoyed colouring pictures that Heidi brought along to the sessions and would spend up 3-4 hours in the evening colouring.
His amazing art work of 30 pictures has only come about since March, through regular conversation with his conversation partner, Heidi Gorringe- Hodder, from Greenwich/ Canterbury Christ Church Universities.
Brian’s friends, family, neighbours, staff and patients from The Stroke Association, and Senior Lecturer Jane Stokes attended the gallery opening not only to celebrate his artwork but to promote and raise awareness of The Stroke Association and the RCSLT’s Giving Voice campaign. Brian’s inspiring story made it into his local paper, the Thanet Extra, which displayed his art work.
Since the exhibition, Brian’s friends at The Stroke Association have heard about the scheme and his progress and are looking to join up to the Conversation Partner Scheme.
By Heidi Gorringe-Hodder
The speech and language therapy course at Canterbury Christchurch and Greenwich universities encourages students to take part in a conversation partner scheme at the beginning of the course.
I interviewed course director, Sophie MacKenzie to discuss why she feels this experience is so important for students, and the benefits of the scheme for all taking part.
How did you first hear about Conversation Partner Schemes?
The programme started in 2007. We heard about the conversation partner scheme through Connect in London. And thought it would be a valuable thing to have in the programme right from the beginning.
What is valuable about the conversation partner scheme?
We were keen to get the service user perspective. And emphasise the importance of people who use speech and language therapy services in developing the programme. Also the scheme gives students insight into what it’s like to live with a communication impairment, not just to learn from lectures and books.
Some people might think that you need to know about speech and language to be a conversation partner. But students start the scheme before they have any academic knowledge of dysphagia. So can anyone become a conversation partner?
The scheme was set up for people from all walks of life. So the fact that our volunteers are students is just a bonus. We ask the students not to think about diagnosis or therapy, but just to be a friend to that person. Not to go in as a therapist at all, but as a companion.
As a speech and language therapist yourself, what are the benefits of people with aphasia having informal conversations?
There are lots of benefits. It’s great for someone to practice skills learnt in therapy, or to gain confidence talking to somebody from outside a therapy session. Being able to use communication in a functional way is very useful. Talking to somebody who can give you the time you perhaps need to convey a message. Somebody who is able to dedicate an hour to facilitate conversation and to understand.
What advice would you give to someone starting the conversation partner scheme?
Don’t be frightened. Some students can be anxious because they’ve not met the person before; they’ve not been in that setting before. Don’t be scared but go in with an open mind. Be led by your conversation partner. See what they are interested in and you’ll be surprised by how much you have in common.
For people with aphasia, I would say give it a go. Lots of conversation partners have said that their confidence has improved and they’ve become friends with their student volunteers.
I had a great friendship with my conversation partner (CP). In this article I reflect on how we shared everyday life experiences. Aphasia can affect much more than we expect.
Reflecting on the CP Scheme
After completing the Conversation Partner Scheme I can now sit down and reflect on the experience as a whole. I am not going to lie, the visits were tiring, but the feeling I got when leaving each session made it so worthwhile. There was no point going into this half-heartedly, you get out of it what you put in. I feel you need to immerse yourself in your partner’s life as much as possible to gain the best insights and learn the most from the experience. So this is exactly what I tried to do.
I came out of the scheme with a great bond and friendship with my CP. We both shared our lives with each other and I think this honesty and naturalness helped create a genuine and sincere friendship. We have planed to keep in touch and to go out on day trips in the near future.
Sharing the highs and lows
From visiting my CP for around six months I feel I have shared a lot of highs and lows with her. After a stroke you are given a completely different life to adapt to and learn to live with. The psychological impact of this alone must be indescribable. You no longer have the life you know and have lived for so long. Your cognition is still intact but you just cannot get the words out you want to say. The frustration is beyond anyone’s realm of thought until you experience it yourself. I feel very grateful to have had this opportunity with my CP and to have shared her journey with her. I have learnt so much from her and I hope I have shown her compassion and supported her in the best way I could.
Everyday tasks become difficult
I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to live after a stroke with right side numbness and severe expressive Aphasia. It makes me question how much I take for granted after seeing my CP struggle with mundane, everyday tasks that I do not even give a second thought to. For example have you ever thought about your ability to say “sorry” after bumping into someone? Seeing the immense relief of my CP after going into a shop and posting a letter it makes me realise how wide ranging an impact Aphasia has on a person’s life. It is so much more than not being able to sit and have a conversation with someone. It is answering the phone, paying a bill, going out on a bus, booking an appointment and keeping in contact with family.
I go away from this scheme with a new outlook on life.
- Never take anything for granted.
- Appreciate the little things. We are all so caught up in our very busy lives. Just take a moment to think what your life would be like if you couldn’t communicate.
- Treat other people how you would want to be treated.
- Do not get impatient.
- Do not think they are rude.
- Give them time and listen.
- Put yourself in their shoes.
Craig writes about his experience being a conversation partner to T who has aphasia. Craig has been impressed by T’s commitment to rehabilitation, and his determination to return to cooking. T says the conversation partner scheme helps him to open up and talk.
“Individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and for altering their self-concepts, basic attitudes, and self directed behaviour” – Carl Rogers, psychologist
When I first walked into my Conversation Partner (CP) T’s flat, welcomed by his tweeting budgies, his warm smile and the offer of a cup of tea, I was conscious about the importance of being myself. I was also mindful of how I was communicating (spoken words, body language, eye contact etc.) and the impact this may have on T’s impression of me.
When I recently asked T what he has learned from the CP scheme, he replied:
“Since signing up I have been lucky enough to meet students who have been genuine, enthusiastic and confident which has made me open up about things I would usually avoid talking about. This has helped me get through some tough times and has given me confidence as a person. I now share things with friends and family whereas before I was a brick wall that bottled things up”.
We meet up for a chat once a week and T has openly shared his remarkable journey of recovering from a severe head injury, and subsequent stroke. I have found his story both insightful and inspiring; In particular how his personality traits of resilience, dedication and sheer stubbornness has helped him to overcome huge obstacles. With his current physical disability, he is still learning and continuing to overcome daily challenges.
Having been a dedicated and successful chef all of his life, returning to the kitchen seemed like an unlikely prospect for T. Determined to regain his independence, T raced through his neurological rehabilitation programme, working closely with Physiotherapy, Speech and Language Therapy and Occupational Therapy to recover his skills to walk, talk and to carry out daily living tasks. T was discharged earlier than expected when the hospital captured him toasting and buttering a piece of toast on video camera.
T now uses some of the culinary skills that he remembers from his catering days, along with specialist adapted equipment, to cook at home. T aims to return to an industrial kitchen to work and is preparing to write a simplified step by step recipe book for people with disabilities looking to redevelop this life skill that we all take for granted. Meeting T has taught me that we all have skills and abilities within us that can be developed and drawn upon to achieve the unimaginable.
By Craig Loftus
The Listening Project, a short series of shows on radio 4 had a great episode today on aphasia and conversation partners.
It’s only short, so if you have a spare 5 minutes it’s well worth listening to this conversation between Anna and Jan, a lady with aphasia and her conversation partner.