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Dirusha MoodleyGraduate student Dirusha Moodley runs the Word Exchange, a conversation group for people with aphasia.

Conversation group gets stroke survivors talking

Alan Rimmington used to talk for a living.

Since suffering his first stroke in 2006, the former tourism ministry employee has had trouble communicating. Words don’t come easily, and when they do, they’re often not the ones he intended.

Rimmington, 72, is living with aphasia, a neurological disorder that affects a person’s ability to speak, read, or write. It results from a brain injury and commonly occurs after a stroke.

To practise his conversation skills, Rimmington meets with other stroke survivors weekly at Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare on Prince Road for the Word Exchange. It’s a free, student-run program offered through Aphasia Friendly Canada, a project of UWindsor psychology professor Lori Buchanan’s Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.

“Aphasia is really isolating,” Dr. Buchanan said. “Most people with aphasia lose their social contacts. Really, this is the worst possible outcome from a brain injury.”

Students from Buchanan’s lab facilitate the sessions, coming up with topics of conversation. They set up the chairs, make the coffee, and hand out pens and paper for participants who can write more fluidly than speak.

Spouses and caregivers meet over coffee at the same time in an adjoining room.

“The students are good for us,” said Rimmington. “Most of us are in the growing-older group, so young people are good for us.”

Rimmington used to work for the tourism ministry as an expert on the War of 1812. He’d give seminars and was often called upon to be a guest speaker at community events throughout the province.

After retiring, Rimmington and his wife moved from Peterborough to Windsor. He would keep busy with part-time work as a guide on the cruise ships that run tours on the Detroit River.

Then came a stroke, affecting his ability to speak. He said he had to give up working, and he “slowed down.” When he learned of Aphasia Friendly Canada’s conversation group, he was eager to give it a try.

“It’s a welcoming group, a place where you can chat and trade stories,” Rimmington said. “You find in regular conversations, it’s hard because you’re speaking slowly. But here, everyone understands.”

Dirusha Moodley, a master’s student in neuroscience who will begin medical school in the fall, helped design the eight-week program.

“The idea is they can interact with other individuals who have similar experiences to their own,” Moodley said. “We’re hoping this will increase their quality of life and increase their confidence when communicating.”

The conversation group is the second project from Aphasia Friendly Canada. The first involves educating service-oriented business about aphasia. Once employees are trained, the business can display a sticker in the front window to indicate people with aphasia will feel welcomed there.

Julia Borsatto, associate director of Aphasia Friendly Canada, said the training project and the conversation group go hand-in-hand.

“It’s symbiotic,” she said. “People from the conversation group can go into these businesses where I’ve done training.… It’s a way to help them integrate back into their community.”

─ Sarah Sacheli