Identifying the communication activities of older people with aphasia: Evidence from naturalistic observation

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Background: Increasingly there is a call from clinicians and researchers for measures that document the impact of aphasia on a person's everyday communication. Do existing assessments of communication disability adequately sample communication activities relevant to our clients? Communication skills and networks change with age. A need exists to determine the everyday communication activities of older people and in particular those with aphasia.

Aims: The primary aim of this study was to describe and compare the everyday communication activities of older people with aphasia and healthy older people who are living in the community. A secondary aim was to investigate the content validity of the American Speech-Language Hearing Association Functional Assessment of Communication Skills for Adults (ASHA FACS, 1997) for older Australians.

Methods & Procedures: Naturalistic observation was the method of choice for detailing the everyday communication of 15 older people with chronic aphasia following stroke and a matched group of 15 healthy older people who were living in the community. Researchers, in the role of participant observer, took field notes for 8 hours, over three occasions within a week. A total of 240 hours of observation have been coded in terms of communication activity, topic, communication partners, and place of communication. A brief 5-day diary served to check the representativeness of the observational data. After each hour of observation, the researcher checked which ASHA FACS items had been observed.

Outcomes & Results: Naturalistic observation provided a rich, rigorous, and systematic methodology for detailing the dynamics and complexities of authentic communication. The most common communication activities for both groups were conversations at home and in social groups. Real-life communication was revealed to serve the dual purposes of transaction and interaction. Results indicate that older people with aphasia engage in similar communication activities to healthy older people although differences were evident in the frequency of communication and in specific activities such as story telling, writing, ,commenting, and acknowledging. ASHA FACS items were generally relevant to older Australians living in the community.

Conclusions: This study demonstrated that communication activity is multifaceted in terms of the type of communication and contextual factors. The observational data describe the effects of aphasia on a person's everyday communication activity and reveal the impact of aphasia on the social functions of communication including sharing information, maintaining and establishing relationships, and telling one's story. Functional communication assessment requires a greater focus on the interactional and uniquely interpersonal aspects of social communication.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: The University of Queensland, Australia

Publication date: January 1, 2003

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