New Bunbury group offers conversational support for those living with aphasia

The Bunbury Aphasia Group has five members (one not pictured) and is seeking more.

The Bunbury Aphasia Group has five members (one not pictured) and is seeking more.

YOU'VE most likely heard of Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's disease and other diseases that can affect our use of language and the ability to communicate - but how about aphasia?

Retired speech pathologist and Volunteer Coordinator of the Western Australian Aphasia Conversation Groups, Sandy Coats, said even in 2021, aphasia was still poorly understood in the community.

"Often people with aphasia will be mistaken as if they've got an intellectual disability or they're incapable in some way," Ms Coats said.

"I remember years ago one of my clients went to take the bus, but when he got on and paid and told the bus driver where he was going, the bus driver kicked him off for being 'drunk', just because it was difficult for him to say where he was going."

Aphasia is a language disorder caused either after a stroke or from a head injury.

We want people with aphasia to come along and interact with others in a supportive environment where everyone gets to speak and not be under any pressure to perform. They're not therapy groups, but they're an opportunity to improve people's quality of life.

Aphasia WA Volunteer Coordinator of Aphasia Conversation Groups, Sandy Coats

Each individual can experience the effects of aphasia differently, but it usually affects ones ability to speak, write and understand both written and verbal language.

To help create an awareness of the disorder, and to expand the already waitlisted groups in Perth, the Bunbury Aphasia group was formed in February 2021.

As part of Aphasia Western Australia, the Bunbury Aphasia group is a social, conversation group held fortnightly by trained volunteers at the Bunbury Library.

The aim of the group is to create a safe, supportive space for people with aphasia to practice their talking without judgement or pressure.

Ms Coats said the Aphasia Western Australia group was revived just three years ago after initially forming in 2006.

"Back then the group just sort of dropped away, but then it got going again. We're all volunteers and we knew through being mostly retired speech pathologists that there was a need for this in our communities."

Aphasia Groups are currently run in Geraldton, South Guildford, Armadale, Floreat, Inglewood and Bunbury, with plans to expand to Albany next.

Tony Gianfrancesco, Ruth Spina, Winni Trezdziack and Robert Coleman are all Bunbury locals living with aphasia.

Tony Gianfrancesco, Ruth Spina, Winni Trezdziack and Robert Coleman are all Bunbury locals living with aphasia.

Ms Coats said part of the groups role was to create an awareness of what aphasia was in the community.

"It's a disability that results from damage to the brain, affecting all areas of language such as understanding, speaking, reading or writing and/or calculations."

"Everyone is individual in how it affects them. Some people just can't read anymore and they loved reading in the past, so it's a real loss for them."

"Just think to yourself, how often do I communicate in all forms during the day? That's what life is about. The consequences for people with aphasia can be devastating," Ms Coats said.

According to Ms Coats, the Bunbury Aphasia group was made possible through the determination and commitment of Volunteer Leaders Marisa Spina and Margaret Trezdziack.

As no strangers to the disorder, Ms Spina's mother, Ruth, developed aphasia as a result of having a stroke.

Perth-based Ms Spina works as a music teacher and travels to Bunbury every fortnight to help run the groups.

Ms Trezdziack's husband Winnie suffers from aphasia after having a severe stroke two years ago.

"Winnie's stroke affected his speech, his understanding and his comprehension. He is completely non-verbal and his right-hand side is paralysed," Ms Trezdziack said.

But despite being non-verbal, Ms Trezdziack said she had seen a huge change in Mr Trezdziack since the groups formation six months ago.

"He looks forward to the group every fortnight and even though he can't talk, it's something he can relate to. He really enjoys it."

Other regular members of the group include Robert 'Bob' Coleman, an ex-Sergeant in the West Australian Police Force and Tony Gianfrancesco, who developed aphasia after also suffering a stroke four years ago.

There's a lot of people in Bunbury with aphasia but they either don't know where to go for support or are embarrassed. In this group, we can literally be ourselves.

Volunteer Leader Margaret Trezdziack

Mr Gianfrancesco's daughter, Sarah Sabatino, said her father initially received therapy at the Bunbury Regional Hospital after his stroke, but the aphasia group was a further benefit due to the social interaction aspect.

"My sister saw the flier for the Aphasia group on Facebook so we started coming. My dad is a real 'blokes bloke' so it's nice knowing he can come here and have a chat," Ms Sabatino said.

"Until someone close to you or in your family has a stroke, you don't really understand the damage it can have. There's big links to depression so we're always conscious of being supportive and not trying to finish his sentences with his aphasis. It's just great knowing there is this kind of support here."

Volunteer Leader Ms Trezdziack said after being operational for six months, the current focus was to promote the Bunbury Aphasia Group to the South West community.

She said despite handing out flyers in doctors surgeries and medical facilities around Bunbury, there was still a lack of knowledge about the group.

"This group is really fantastic but a lot of people still don't know about it. Everyone is welcome to just come once and see what it is like. They can be themselves. It gives them something to look forward to."

Bunbury Aphasia Group Volunteer Leaders Marisa Spina and Margaret Trezdziack.

Bunbury Aphasia Group Volunteer Leaders Marisa Spina and Margaret Trezdziack.

"There's a lot of people in Bunbury with aphasia but they either don't know where to go for support or are embarrassed. In this group, we can literally be ourselves. We can talk, we can laugh, we've got games. Whatever anyone wants to do we just do it and have a great time. That's what people with aphasia need," Ms Trezdziack said.

Ms Trezdziack also emphasised how no one thinking of joining the aphasia group needed to ever feel embarrassed about being themselves.

"We sit and wait until someone is ready to respond. People unfortunately can come with the expectation that they have to be perfect, but nobody is perfect. Just listening can make a big difference."

Would you or someone you know benefit from attending the fortnightly Bunbury Aphasia Group?

Find out more by contacting Volunteer Coordinator of the Western Australian Aphasia Conversation groups, Sandy Coats, via aphasiawa@gmail.com or on 0419923522.

The next Bunbury Aphasia Group meeting will take place on Friday, August 13 at the ICT Room at the Bunbury Library.

"That's what we're doing with these groups. We want people with aphasia to come along and interact with others in a supportive environment where everyone gets to speak and not be under any pressure to perform. They're not therapy groups, but they're an opportunity to improve people's quality of life. Come along, have a cuppa and enjoy the social interaction," Ms Coats said.