Storytelling leads to a transformative student experience

A student watches attentively as a senior gentleman looks at a black and white photograph

Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) play a primary role in the screening, assessment, diagnosis, treatment and research of cognitive-communication disorders, including those associated with dementia. Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) Speech Language Pathology students have been afforded a unique learning experience by participating in a nonprofit organization called TimeSlips.  In this program, students use storytelling to interact with and learn from people with dementia in skilled-nursing facilities and long-term care settings.

The challenge for speech-language pathology students

Persons with dementia-associated communication problems represent the profession’s fastest growing clinical population. These demographic trends present significant challenges for health care providers, including Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs).

One of these challenges is that faculty and staff in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) adequately prepare future SLPs to meet the needs of our nation’s older adults, including growing numbers of people with dementia and people with mild cognitive impairment. To meet this demographic challenge, Associate Professor Sabine Heuer, PhD CCC-SLP, designed a service learning course for undergraduate students who major in CSD to become SLPs.

Innovative service learning opportunity

The course, COMSDIS 460: Survey of Adult Neurogenic Language and Speech Disorders, provides undergraduate students who major in CSD a survey of acquired neurogenic communication disorders, including characteristics and causes of dementia.

Through the UWM Center for Community-Based Learning, Leadership, and Research, Heuer partnered with the nonprofit organization, TimeSlips. TimeSlips uses storytelling to help adults with cognitive-communication disorders replace the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine. Their goal is to educate students in techniques of creative storytelling with people living with dementia, and provide opportunities for practicing TimeSlips in care communities in Milwaukee.

Facilitating TimeSlips allowed students to engage with older adults with and without dementia.

It deepened their understanding of the nature of the disorder, the impact of the communication disorder on clients and the potential of meaningful social and communicative engagement for clients’ well-being.

Students who participated say:“I believe I have been utilizing and strengthening my level of patience and compassion throughout this experience.”

“TimeSlips provided the chance to explore, learn and develop the skills I will need when I become a clinician.”

“I will leave this semester with a far greater understanding and compassion for those with dementia. I now know how colorful and rich the stories from their past can be.”

“I enjoy bringing a group of people together for moments of laughter, singing and unexpected moments of fun. I think participants feel as though they belong and know their ideas will be accepted and valued.”

Learning through community engagement

While Heuer provided content about healthy and impaired aging in the course meetings, TimeSlips Master Trainer Joan Williamson was instrumental with her encouragement and support for every group of students as they began their service learning with groups of residents. She supported the students throughout the semester and witnessed the amazing transformations in both students and the residents.

With experience, the students grew more competent and confident as they facilitated the weekly group meetings. They experienced a tremendous change in their attitude toward people with dementia and learned vital clinical skills.

More importantly, Heuer stated, “Students truly had a tangible impact on the lives of residents. By forming bonds with their groups, they provided meaningful, stimulating engagement. This in turn helped build relationships and a sense of community, which brought joy to the residents.