The Aphasia Support Program (ASP), a division of the Home-Based Allied Health program, has been meeting at the Cheltenham Community Centre every Tuesday for years. Typically, members of the program share morning tea, birthday cakes, visit local cafes, visit the local Apple store, watch movies at the cinema, and chat.
Every member of the group has aphasia – an acquired communication impairment post-stroke or brain injury, which affects talking, understanding, reading, and writing. This year, the group faced a new and unexpected challenge with COVID-19 restrictions, which meant their meetings were cancelled and moved online.
Facilitators Roz Shand (Speech Pathologist) and Cherie Poulter (Allied Health Assistant) trialled different methods of video conferencing to find which was most ‘aphasia friendly’. Despite the challenges the group has continued to meet since 31 March, missing only one week.
Each week around 12 members attend, with family members or carers also occasionally joining. Together they have shared happy news, sad news, jokes, stories, concerns and fears. Several birthdays have been celebrated virtually with crazy hats in place and slightly out-of-sync, yet no less enthusiastic, singing.
The group is facing the same challenges as the rest of the world in adapting to this new method of virtual connection, with the added challenge of communication impairment. Despite this, they have persevered and leaned into the discomfort in order to find a new normal.
Many members found they have had greater communication success online – with improved fluency and increased confidence contributing to the discussion – asking more questions and taking a greater interest in other’s lives. Virtual meetings have allowed the group to meet each other’s family members that may be isolated with them, show off their pets, have virtual tours and show off artwork they have produced since their stroke.
Together they have had a virtual tour of the Carnegie Community Laneway Garden and Gallery (down the road from one group member) with members requesting close-ups of art and discussing their favourite aspects. The group is excited to embrace a new project with plant seedlings and aphasia-friendly instructions now on their way in the mail.
In the future, when the group can meet face-to-face, they hope to replant these in a new community garden. They have also recently started a movie club where members of the group watch a movie in their own time, and then discuss it at the next group.
In this challenging time, the Aphasia Support Program has not only continued but flourished. Members boosted their confidence not only with the technology but communication.
Social distancing has brought this socially-isolated patient population closer together while remaining apart.