A 'Chit Chat Cafe' for people with language impairment

People who have aphasia meet monthly to practise talking and socialising with peers

Speech therapist Koh Sze Khee, 29, in a Chit Chat Cafe session with Mr Foo Chai Keng (far right), 75, and Mr Cheong Hon Kee.
Speech therapist Koh Sze Khee, 29, in a Chit Chat Cafe session with Mr Foo Chai Keng (far right), 75, and Mr Cheong Hon Kee. ST PHOTO: JASMINE CHOONG

Mr Cheong Hon Kee, 65, had been working in the telecommunications industry for decades and travelled the world for work. But after a fall four years ago that led to bleeding in his brain, he no longer enjoys the same ease of communication.

Unable to recall certain words, he tries to describe them instead. For instance, he refers to a car as "the thing with four wheels".

IT specialist Herman Ho is only about half Mr Cheong's age, but he also faces similar issues.

He can name an apple or an orange, but has difficulty saying grape. When he scrolls through his Facebook account, he recognises his friends but cannot name them.

Three months ago, Mr Ho, 39, was taken to hospital after experiencing pain in his head. When he woke up, he could not speak any language except Teochew - the dialect he converses with his wife - for five days. Slowly, he regained the ability to use languages.

Both Mr Ho and Mr Cheong are part of a growing group of people here who have a condition known as aphasia. Those who have it have difficulty speaking and understanding speech, reading and writing, or a combination of these. It is acquired when the regions of the brain responsible for language are affected after an injury, most commonly from a stroke.

There is no official data on the number of people living with aphasia in Singapore, though it is believed to be rising as more people fall prey to strokes, mainly because of an ageing population.

According to a 2018 report by the National Registry of Diseases Office, the number of stroke episodes increased from 5,578 in 2007 to 7,413 in 2016. About a third of strokes result in aphasia, according to the National Aphasia Association in the United States.

  • 7,413

  • Number of stroke episodes in 2016, up from 5,578 in 2007. About a third of strokes result in aphasia, according to the National Aphasia Association in the United States.

Ms Evelyn Khoo, 42, a speech and language therapist at the Abilities Beyond Limitations and Expectations (Able) rehabilitation centre, said many patients were confident and outgoing before their brain injury or stroke, but become withdrawn and socially isolated after they develop aphasia.

Last year, she started a non-profit organisation called Chit Chat Cafe, which aims to provide a safe environment for people with aphasia to meet monthly and practise talking and socialising with others with the same condition. The session is facilitated by healthcare professionals such as speech therapists.

There is no other support network specifically for people with aphasia, though the Singapore National Stroke Association does run support groups for stroke survivors and caregivers.

Unlike other support groups where participants benefit by sharing their experiences, some people at Chit Chat Cafe sessions may not be able to talk at all. Instead, volunteer speech therapists may use gestures or drawings to help them communicate. Participants are grouped according to their age, interests and the severity of their condition.

"There are various types of aphasia. We have a woman who can speak fluently but her sentences don't make sense. We have another woman who can only speak two or three words at a time, but give her a pen and paper and she is able to write full sentences," said Ms Khoo.

Two weeks ago, about 40 people with aphasia and 40 caregivers met at a community space at Clarke Quay Central for a Chit Chat Cafe session. More plans are under way.

Chit Chat Cafe is recruiting people with aphasia to form a choir for a public performance by the end of the year. Research shows that singing can rewire the brain by forming new connections.

People with aphasia can sing even if they cannot speak as the music bypasses the injured brain cells, using rhythm and memory to prompt the words.

Ms Khoo is also planning to set up an Aphasia Hub, a daycare centre of sorts, soon. "It is good that they can meet one another to talk once a month now, but what about the rest of the days in the month?" she said.

Mr Ho, who had part of his skull removed due to the swelling of his brain and wears a soft helmet, is happy to be able to find a community of friends. "We set up a WhatsApp group and those who can't type words will just send audio recordings (to express themselves). You feel better when you know you are not alone."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2019, with the headline A 'Chit Chat Cafe' for people with language impairment. Subscribe