How Parkinson’s affects communication

If the person you care for has Parkinson’s, you may be surprised to discover the many ways the disease hampers communication. Voice problems alone affect 60%-80% of people with this condition. Low volume and slurred speech may make it hard at times for you to grasp what your loved one is saying. He or she may be slow to respond. Or words may tumble out very quickly and somewhat jumbled. Misunderstandings and frustration are common. Fortunately, both of you can take steps to help offset communication issues.

Facial masking
The face has 43 muscles. Their movement gives us expression. But Parkinson’s restricts facial muscles just as it restricts leg and arm muscles. The result is a stiff or “blank” expression. Typically, such a look indicates anger, boredom, or sadness. But with Parkinson’s, none of that may be true. Ask your relative what he or she is feeling about the topic you are discussing. It may be far from what their nonverbal cues are “telling” you.

To minimize problems:

  • Aim for one-on-one conversations or small groups
  • Choose a quiet room with few distractions and sit near each other
  • Encourage your loved one to take a deep breath before speaking
  • Don’t rush. Wait to give your relative a chance to respond
  • Listen patiently. Pressure to perform will make speech more difficult

Try speech therapy and singing
A speech therapist with special Parkinson’s training can provide facial and voice exercises. Ask in particular about an LSVT “Loud” program. Named for the Parkinson’s patient it was designed for, Lee Silverman Voice Treatment helps people recalibrate their impression of what “loud enough” is. The speech therapist may recommend helpful devices such as a portable voice amplifier, or singing as a fun way to practice breath control. Singing in a group also provides an opportunity for socializing, accomplishment, and fun!

Is communication strained?
It can be surprisingly difficult to interact with a loved one who seems stern or uninterested, even when you know it’s the disease. We at Iowa City Hospice have experience working with people with Parkinson’s. As the Iowa City, Muscatine and Cedar Rapids experts in family caregiving, we can guide you with tips and referrals to appropriate specialists. Give us a call at 1-800-897-3052, toll-free.