For someone living with dementia, communicating can be an evolving challenge. Symptoms of the condition can often take away a person’s ability to remember words, organize sentences and, in some cases, even speak entire languages.
Padmaja Genesh is a learning specialist with the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. She says all types of dementia tend to make communication harder.
“As the disease is progressing, the ability to communicate will diminish gradually,” says Genesh. “People living with dementia will have difficulty expressing themselves and also difficulty understanding others.”
People who speak multiple languages, specifically immigrants to Canada who learned English at a later stage in their life, tend to lose their vocabulary and revert back to their native language. Genesh says it is believed this happens because English is more recently acquired knowledge compared to their native language, making it more likely to be forgotten.
This presents unique challenges for families who immigrated to Canada from another part of the world. For example, finding services in the mother tongue is often difficult, adding to the sense of isolation that can come with the dementia experience.
“Even in the middle stage [of the disease], the person can revert to their first language, especially for immigrants,” says Genesh. “Sometimes, even the kids might have been raised here and not speak that language at all.”
Nectarios Charitakis has experienced some of these struggles first-hand. His parents moved from Greece to Montreal in the early 1950s and his mother was diagnosed with dementia in her final years. As his mother’s dementia progressed, she lost all her ability to speak English and French and reverted back to Greek.
“Eventually, my mom’s bed was surrounded by all these yellow Post-it notes that had words translated phonetically from Greek into English, just to help the nurses communicate with my mom,” says Charitakis.
Charitakis has since founded uCarenet, an organization that helps families get in touch with, and hire, caregivers. He says the experience of caring for his mother made him think of the countless people, families and caregivers across Canada struggling with similar problems around language.
Working from the Post-it notes, Charitakis created a series of posters that included phonetic translations of key words from a variety of languages for caregivers. The posters — available to download for free on uCarenet’s website — feature icons of actions such as eating, washing and sleeping, with the foreign words spelled out phonetically underneath in 12 different languages.
Charitakis soon started getting requests from caregivers for something similar in a smaller format, so he began developing the CareLingo app. The app translates 35 activities of daily living and about five crucial phrases into 14 different languages.
“You can pull out the app, show someone the picture for ‘stand’ and touch it and it will actually say the activity in whatever language,” says Charitakis. “This app is specifically designed around home care. There’s other translation apps, but this is designed around activities of daily living.”
A second version of the app, currently in development (the beta version was released in December), will use voice-to-voice translation to incorporate a real-time translation feature. Caregivers or people living with dementia can speak directly into the app and it will translate the words into the desired language.
Currently, the CareLingo app costs $2.79 to download and is available for both Android and iPhone. [ ]