What is a speech therapist?

For many of us, the words “speech therapy” make us think of a classmate in grade school who had trouble because of stuttering. In fact, speech therapists help with many problems that crop up later in life. Consider stroke, Parkinson’s, dementia, and brain injury. All these disorders can affect a person’s ability to find and form words, put together language, vocalize, and even swallow.

Speech therapists work with speech-, brain-, and throat-related problems. (They are also known as “speech pathologists.”) Like occupational therapists and physical therapists, speech therapists are specially trained members of the health care team. Medicare pays for their services if a doctor makes a referral.

What does a speech therapist do?

The first step is evaluation. Depending on your loved one’s difficulties, the speech therapist will assess your loved one’s ability to

  • form words and make sounds
  • understand spoken words
  • find words and organize thoughts into speech
  • regain skills for reading and writing
  • control volume or pitch of the voice
  • swallow without choking

The speech therapist will then develop a treatment plan. This might involve recommendations to consult your doctor about medication or surgery. Or exercises your loved one can do at home. The exercises may work to improve muscle control of the tongue and throat. Or may rebuild nerve pathways to the brain. Or help your relative learn to pay attention to voice volume or facial expression.

As with many therapies, it is up to the patient to practice at home. This is where you come in, providing support and removing barriers without appearing to nag.

Speech therapists work in various settings. For instance, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and independent offices. In some circumstances, if your loved one meets Medicare’s “homebound” criteria, the therapist can come to the home.

If you think your loved one might benefit from speech therapy, ask the doctor for a referral.