How Can I Support A Caregiver?

As modern medicine improves and our population ages, more individuals are able to live longer with serious health issues including permanent deficits resulting from a brain injury.  This notable demographic shift places more loved ones in the position of serving as long-term caregivers.  These caregivers need all available support from those around them but many of those capable of offering assistance are simply unaware of how best to help.  Here are a few quick suggestions on how to support caregivers:

1.     Call them and ask how you can help.  Caregivers may feel shy or embarrassed to initiate requests for help but are often far more receptive to assistance if it is offered.   This gives caregivers opportunity to request specific aspects of help most needed at a given juncture, and they will certainly be grateful for all help shared.

2.    Offer to have the caregiver and survivor over for a meal or to deliver a meal to them.  With all of the responsibilities that caregivers meet on a daily basis, having someone else take care of even a single meal can be a source of welcome relief.

3.    Be there to listen.  Many caregivers feel overwhelmed by their experiences.  A friendly phone call or visit with a supportive ear helps relieve some of this emotional burden.  Knowing that others care about their well-being is very important for caregivers in maintaining their own emotional health.

4.    Be a friend to the survivor.  After their injuries, many survivors find that their social circles quickly shrink.  Some caregivers can find themselves serving as the only social outlet for the survivors in their lives.  This can be a source of tremendous additional stress in the life of a caregiver.  Being a part of the survivor’s social circle reduces the need for the caregiver to fill all of these social roles.  Moreover, the survivor is sure to appreciate this as well!

5.    Offer to spend time with the survivor so the caregiver can spend a little time tending to his or her own needs.  As a result of devotion to meeting needs of a survivor, it’s all to easy for caregivers to end up neglecting their own.  A few brief hours just to cover an unhurried trip to the grocery store, hair salon or doctor’s office (or simply to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee on their own) can do wonders for a caregiver’s quality of life.

6.    Take a moment out of your day to send a card, e-mail or flowers.  Sometimes we don’t have a lot of time to spare for lengthy calls or visits but a quick note to say “hello” tells the caregiver that they are not forgotten.

Hopefully this list will give you ideas to start reaching out and supporting caregivers!

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center!  Visit us at: http://tlcrehab.org/

Education Loan Forgiveness

With the continuing rise of college costs, more and more students are taking out Federal loans to pay for higher education.  These loans can often total in the tens of thousands of dollars.  Following a severe brain injury, many survivors will of course see ability to pay back such loans severely diminished.  These loan payments can be an incredible financial burden at a time when survivors are already stretched perilously thin financially.  However, the United States Department of Education has a loan cancellation/forgiveness program for those survivors unable to work (or not expected to be able to work) for at least a five year period of time.  This type of loan forgiveness is known as Total and Permanent Discharge.  Qualifying individuals are able to get forgiveness of William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program (Direct Loan) loans, Federal Family Education Loan Program (FEEL) loans, Federal Perkins Loan  Program (Perkins Loan) loans and TEACH Grant service obligations.  If you are interested in more information, the link below will bring you to the official US Department of Education webpage for Total and Permanent Discharge.  Please be sure to read the information fully as there are important tax implications accompanying participation in this program.

https://www.disabilitydischarge.com/

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center!  Visit us at: http://tlcrehab.org/

Life, Brain Injury and Repairing with Gold

There is a fascinating art form originating from Japan called “kintsugi” (a name formed from the Japanese root words meaning “golden” and “joining”).  In this form of art, broken pottery is repaired by using lacquer mixed with gold, silver or platinum.  Rather than being hidden, these cracks are instead highlighted, enhanced and made to reveal an entirely separate and distinct beauty.  Kintsugi is connected to the philosophy of “wabi-sabi” which means “finding beauty in broken or old things”.  This is not really a philosophy of items but a deeper spiritual concept informing a healthy approach to the world around us.

This idea of making the cracks more beautiful rather than trying to hide the break is an amazing metaphor for post-injury growth.  Survivors should not feel the need to hide or be embarrassed by their injuries.  Survivors never asked to have brain injuries, the events simply happened.  But there is a great deal of opportunity to use an injury and the rehabilitation process to take beautiful steps forward in life.  Some TLC patients have taken their experiences and used them to educate others about brain injuries.  Rather than shying away, they put themselves out front and center so as to benefit others in a powerful way that typical rehabilitation professionals do not have access to.  These survivors can speak from the authority conferred by actually having lived through the injury experience, lending their words an innate credibility that similar statements from health care and rehabilitation professionals can sometimes lack.  Other TLC patients have used their injuries as impetus to reach out to family and rekindle strained relationships.  Relatives who had not spoken for years were able to be reunited through response to these injuries.  Still other TLC patients have used their injuries to take their lives in healthier directions, such as returning to school, getting better jobs or cultivating sobriety.  Each of these steps forward is a way of taking the breaks in life created by brain injuries and repairing them with a “golden joining”, so that the survivors engage the world in an undeniably changed but potentially more beautiful and impactful way than before those changes wrought by their injuries.

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center!  Visit us at: http://tlcrehab.org/

 

Utilizing Music For Mood

Music has the amazing power to touch our hearts and souls.  The right song at the right time can move us in powerful ways, eliciting emotions ranging from brightest joy to deepest sorrow.  Harnessing the power of music can also help brain injury survivors (along with the rest of us) make it through their days more successfully.

It is a common sight at a gym to see the majority of participants working out with music in the background to help keep them motivated and driven.  This music tends to be upbeat and intense.  This workout music highlights the ability of music to boost our performance.  Survivors may want to consider using similar energetic background music while they are working out, whether in a gym or in therapy, to help them when they might be feeling low in energy.  However, it is important to ensure that the music does not distract the survivor.  An example of this pitfall to be avoided can be observed in a survivor suffering from substantial deficits in the arena of attention.  A catchy song could cause this survivor to sing along and devote a disastrous lack of attention to foot placement while practicing walking.  Finding the balance (whenever possible) between drive and distraction is important.  Energetic music may also help mitigate general fatigue that can occur at any part of the day.

Music has the ability to lift us when we feel down.  Following a brain injury, many survivors will display acute symptoms of depression or at the very least be significantly (if understandably) sad about their situations.  Survivors should identify songs that lift their moods and listen to that music when they find themselves feeling low.  These songs often tend to incorporate themes of hope and joy.  Religious music is also a very popular and effective source of this helpful form of mood modulation.

Many survivors also face serious difficulties with stress and anger.  Certain music can help individuals to relax and stay calm.  Soft, classical music tends to be popular to ease stress and anger though other types of music can do this as well.  Some individuals prefer listening to sounds of nature (such as waves lapping upon a beach) to reach a more calm state.  Meditation music is a hot market and there is a huge amount of excellent music available both in stores and online.

Not every song will help with every mood and sometimes the music that is most helpful may not be the survivor’s favorite song or from a favorite band.  What is most important is that the music in question leads to the emotional experience that the survivor would like to cultivate.  Technology has advanced exponentially over the last few years, and survivors should take full advantage.  A survivor can keep a playlist of songs to help influence his or her emotions on a smartphone, Ipod or other similar device that can then be accessed throughout the day.  Remember that music can be an important part of any recovery process!

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center!  Visit us at: http://tlcrehab.org/

 

 

 

What Is Prosopagnosia?

Prosopagnosia is a symptom of brain injury in which brain injury survivors face acute difficulty in recognizing the faces of people (even including the faces of loved ones closest to survivors).  A survivor with prosopagnosia may not even recognize his or her own mother’s face.  In spite of this lack of recognition, this same survivor may easily recognize his or her mother’s voice or a distinctive item of clothing worn.  Prosopagnosia is not a memory or visual deficit.  A survivor with prosopagnosia can have good vision and strong memory in spite of this deficit.  Survivors with prosopagnosia generally have little difficulty identifying various common objects.  The issue sees sole expression in the recognition of faces.

Prosopagnosia most typically results from an injury to the right fusiform gyrus, inferior occipital gyrus and/or the superior temporal sulcus of the brain.  These parts of the brain govern facial perception.  Among their functions is to connect the parts of the brain that store names with those that store information about people.  As such, a survivor may recognize parts of a person but have difficulty organizing those disparate parts into a single cohesive picture.  As example, a recent TLC patient could identify one of her therapists because he wears a yarmulke (a Jewish religious hat), but could not recognize the rest of his face as belonging to that therapist.  So if that therapist were to ever remove his hat, she would lose ability to visually recognize her therapist despite working with him several times per week.  This deficit can limit function and cause stress in many areas of survivors’ lives.  For example, it would be hard for a survivor to return to a job in sales if he or she could not recognize clients’ faces.  Similarly, going to church could prove significantly awkward if the survivor could not differentiate between the face of the pastor and that of the pastor’s wife.  Home life would suffer unique stress if a survivor could not differentiate between the faces of the survivor’s wife and the survivor’s mother.  Interestingly, there are some people who are born with a developmental form of prosopagnosia.  For instance, Jane Goodall the world famous researcher of chimpanzees had prosopagnosia.  One of the most famous neurologists in modern times, Oliver Sacks, had prosopagnosia as well.

Many survivors notice improvement in their prosopagnosia as symptoms of their overall brain injuries improve.  Progress of this nature tends to be more common in cases of a brain injury suffered on one side of the brain rather than on both sides of the brain.  Compensatory strategies such as mentally attaching semantic information (e.g. a person’s job) to a person’s face and verbally describing facial features when practicing with faces (e.g. John has a big nose) have shown some benefit.  Many survivors with prosopagnosia use other methods of identification (e.g. voice, unique gait, body type) instead of faces to identify others.

I hope this helped to explain some of the basics of prosopagnosia, a brain injury symptom that can cause significant problems in a survivor’s functioning.

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: http://tlcrehab.org/

Tell Me What You Can Do

While under our care here at TLC, it’s very common for patients to talk with staff about post-injury deficits and areas of recovery  that present those patients with particular difficulty.  The self-awareness of deficits that such dialogue promotes is crucial to successful navigation of the therapy landscape.  However, there is a specific aspect of this self-awareness that poses to our patients consistent and notable struggle.  Namely, patients all too often encounter real difficulty in cultivating a healthy self-awareness of what they CAN do in spite of their deficits.

What brain injury survivors can do after an injury is equally important to that which they cannot do.  For example, recognition of memory deficits is important but so is the recognition of functional hand use that allows a survivor to write memory notes.  Recognition of motor deficits that prevent driving is important but so is the recognition of speech skills that allow a survivor to call a cab.  Recognition of walking deficits is important but so is the recognition of upper extremity capabilities that allow for use of a wheelchair.

This topic often comes up in relation to patients’ desire to return to work.  Survivors will often be upset that deficits necessarily preclude a return to pre-injury employment.  It’s important to help these survivors realize that they still possess skills that can be utilized at a different job, and to then aid them in identifying these remaining marketable skills.  For instance, a survivor with balance issues may not be able to return to his or her previous position as a roofer but if he or she has adequate speech and hand use then that survivor could serve as an online customer service representative.  As one of our therapists is fond of telling patients, you work on your deficits but you get paid on your strengths.  Self-awareness of strengths is vital to successful work re-integration.

This can also prove an important issue in successful family and home re-integration.   Upon returning home from TLC, many  patients struggle with significant necessary alterations to the roles they fill in aspects of family life.  Conventional wisdom dictates the confronting of some remarkably distressing questions.  How can one be a good spouse absent any capacity to serve as breadwinner?  How can one still be a good parent to children and never once drive them to school?  But there are so many wholly irreplaceable roles that the survivors can still fill in spite of any deficit.  They can still be loving and attentive partners to spouses.  They can still serve as the go-to parent for relationship advice.  They can still be just as enthusiastic cheerleaders  on the sidelines at sporting activities.  All of these things that they can do just as well post-injury are tremendously valuable to their loves ones.

Ultimately, thoroughly identifying what a survivor can do allows that survivor to more easily overcome obstacles, locate future opportunities and maintain a healthy self-image.  As a brain injury rehabilitation therapist, I do need to be told what it is that you can’t do.  But you’d better be prepared to also tell me what you can!

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: http://tlcrehab.org/

 

It’s Ok To Do It Differently

When I was a senior in high school, I had a physics teacher whose outlook differed from that of most science teachers.  Early in the year she told us that when we answered questions on her tests, she did not care about how we came to a given answer.  As long as that answer was correct, the method by which it was arrived upon did not matter.  Work did still have to be shown as in any other science class.  Even if that work bore no resemblance to that which she had prescribed though, a result was perfectly acceptable provided that the answers matched.

In many ways a healthy approach to rehabilitation is similar to this outlook championed by my former physics teacher.  Due to their injuries, rehabilitation patients are often unable to complete tasks in the same manner as they did before.  For instance, a patient with only one functioning hand will not be able to cut vegetables for a salad as he or she did prior to the injury but utilizing a one-handed rocker knife produces the same results.  A patient who has trouble speaking may not be able to verbally place an order at a restaurant but typing the order into an Ipad speech app produces the same results.  As you can see, there are often multiple methods by which to accomplish a given goal.  Effectiveness is the most important measure of a method’s worth, not whether it is identical to a previous method.

The idea of reaching the same goal through different methods sometimes bothers patients and their families.  In some cases, patients and their families refuse to use alternative methods because they are focused on doing things in exactly the same way as they have in the past.  A patient completing minor tasks just as he or she did prior to an injury holds strong appeal as a signifier of a return to normalcy.  However, due to the injuries this may not be realistic either at this stage of rehabilitation or for the foreseeable future.  Accepting alternative methods consistently allows patients to be far more functional in both work and home environments.  These alternative methods often allow patients to be more independent whereas insistence upon pre-injury methods can  bring with it a dependence on others.  It is important that patients and their families embrace alternative methods of accomplishing daily goals so that patients can achieve at their highest levels.  This open-minded attitude often yields the best long-term therapy results.

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: http://tlcrehab.org/

Quick Points on Wheelchair Safety in Parking Lots

Following their injuries, many brain injury survivors are left depending upon wheelchairs to meet basic mobility needs.  This change in mobility creates new safety considerations that must be taken into account on a daily basis.  One of these considerations surrounds strategies for safely navigating a parking lot while in a wheelchair.

Most adults are between 5 and 6.5 feet tall.  They are accustomed to being easily visible to drivers distractedly circling a parking lot and through rear windshields as drivers back up vehicles out of parking spaces.  When sitting in a wheelchair though, normal adults are often effectively no taller than  young children.  Even the most conscientious driver can struggle while exiting a parking space to see a pedestrian in a wheelchair.  These survivors are also often harder to see by a driver making the turn from one parking lot lane on to another.  Due to this change in baseline visibility, survivors in wheelchairs and their families must be more vigilant of vehicle activity and the abilities at every identifiable moment of drivers to see the survivors.  They must spend more time looking around to observe vehicle activity, just as they would when in the presence of a small child who may slip the notice of nearby drivers.

Another issue regarding parking lot safety is that survivors in wheelchairs are generally slower than the average person would be while moving across the same parking lot.  Since it takes more time to traverse any distance, survivors and their families must add extra time in their calculations as to whether there might be enough time to safely cross in front of an approaching vehicle.   If the result of such calculations inspire even the suggestion of doubt, erring on the side of patience is always the best policy.  Sometimes, family and friends may need to push the survivors’ wheelchairs to help move quickly enough to safely avoid traffic.  Additionally, typical adults generally can step up onto the curb from the parking lot at any location they choose.  Survivors in wheelchairs must use curb cut ramps which often means that they have to take a longer route to get onto the curb and consequently spend more time in the path of vehicles.  Again, survivors and their families must be aware of this additional urgency when choosing a path across any parking lot.

These are just a few quick points on wheelchair safety in the parking lot.  I hope everyone has a safe time in their travels, particularly in parking lots!

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: http://tlcrehab.org/

 

The Problem With the Word “Should”

The word “should” may be one of the most hazardous words in the life of a brain injury survivor.  It tends to appear in sentences such as “I should be walking already” or “I should have been back at my job by now.”  The word confers a tremendous degree of expectation on the survivor and implies that somehow the survivor is a failure if he or she has not achieved what he or she “should” have achieved.  Often, this word sparks a cascade of statements by which survivors verbally punish themselves.  “I should have been able to walk without a wheelchair but I instead I fell.  I should be doing better with my mobility.  I am letting down my whole family!”  These “should” statements can easily lead to depression, stress and damaged self-esteem.

The reality is that each brain injury heals at its own rate and as a result each survivor is left with his or her own unique set of challenges.  After a serious brain injury, it often takes a survivor considerably longer than he or she may expect to reach goals due to the severity of the injury suffered.  An injured brain is not like a broken arm.  You cannot put a brain in a cast as you would put an arm, expecting that in a relatively brief period of time the brain will be healed.  Brain injury rehabilitation is a process that takes time and patience.  The only applicable “should” enters into consideration in emphasizing that the survivor should dedicate full effort to his or her therapies.  That is all anyone, including the survivor, can reasonably ask for.  As long as the survivor is giving his or her best effort, the survivor is doing everything in his or her power to get better.  The rest of the process will depend on time, the practicing and learning of new skills and how the survivor’s individul brain heals following a specific injury.  Recovery cannot be rushed or forced.  “Should” statements that imply that somehow recovery ought to have gone differently are thus plainly revealed as emotional snares best avoided.

 

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: http://tlcrehab.org/

 

Why Are We “Suddenly” Hearing About Brain Injuries

Brain injuries are a hot topic in today’s media.  Whether it be football players with lasting damage due to concussions, soldiers suffering from brain injuries due to overseas conflicts or the latest youth sports concussion protocols, it seems that there are suddenly many news stories on brain injury that simply were not around just five or ten years ago.  Some individuals may be cynical and wonder whether brain injuries are simply the “diagnosis of the moment”, one of the many diagnoses that are suddenly “hot” but will disappear over time.  To those individuals, I would like to offer several rational reasons why brain injury stories have become more prominent over the last few years.

First, many people are now living with brain injuries who would have died from their injuries in previous eras.  The medical world has advanced significantly over the years and now doctors are able to save the lives of people who would have otherwise died. However, just because their lives were saved does not mean they emerged from their health emergency unscathed.  These survivors often have brain injuries which require treatment.  Please allow me to give an example of this change over time.  I once was talking over lunch with an older rabbi about Transitional Learning Center.  He relayed a story about his time at a synagogue many decades ago in Indiana.  A young man in his community had a serious motorcycle accident and as his rabbi, he visited the young man in the hospital.  After conversing for a while and finishing his visit, the rabbi exited the room.  As he left, the doctor pulled him aside and said “You know he will be dead in three days”.  The rabbi was shocked, having just had a full conversation with the young man.  But the doctor was correct.  The hospital had no means to manage his brain injury.  Due to either brain swelling, bleeding or both (the rabbi did not know the details), the young man passed three days later.  Today, a person with a similar motorcycle accident would have a surgery and other potential procedures to manage his injury and would stand a good chance of living, albeit with a brain injury.  Similarly, improvements in military field medicine are allowing many soldiers to survive blasts and other dangers that would have killed them in previous battles.  Thankfully, these soldiers still have their lives, but often struggle with long-lasting brain injuries suffered in their military service.

Second, it is important to acknowledge the active suppression of information regarding brain injuries in certain circles that is only recently coming to light.  Most famously, the NFL actively denied and hid data on the long-term brain injury effects of concussions to former football players.  Through a series of lawsuits, the NFL opened up about brain injuries and is now acknowledging the long-term injuries that many former players have suffered.  This has led to a complex $1 billion settlement for players with long-term effects of brain injuries.  Following these court cases, many other lawsuits have been filed against other professional and amateur sports, leading to further agreements and new safety protocols.  The suppression in the past contributed to an artificial perception that brain injuries were less common than they actually were.

Third, we are in an age of information so it is much easier to learn about what is happening to people across the country, and even across the world.  Just think about how often you hear or read stories about a robbery or kidnapping occurring hundreds of miles from where you live.  Until the age of the internet, most of those stories would be confined to local media.  Now, stories can go “viral” and suddenly everyone knows the details.  This phenomenon is equally true in the realm of brain injuries.  A simple keyword search of “brain injury” will bring up a plethora of local stories that prior to the age of the internet would have been hidden from most of the world.  These local stories existed in the past but only now d0 we have so much access to them.

Fourth, we are now having a more honest conversation about brain injuries.  In the past, people generally did not talk about brain injuries.  Athletes and soldiers rarely mentioned their deficits due to fear of sounding “weak”.  Individuals with brain injury deficits from car accidents, strokes or other methods were often afraid of negative views and discrimination if others knew about their deficits.  We are now coming to an age of sharing without fear.  It may be hard to believe but the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the civil rights legislation that has allowed for a greater involvement of people with disabilities in the workplace without fear of discrimination, was only passed in 1990.  In comparison, the Civil Rights Act, which blocked discrimination due to issues such as race, gender, and religion, was passed in 1964.

Fifth, we are much more able to diagnose and treat brain injuries than in the past.  Technology such as MRI and CT exams to scan the brain and locate injuries are relatively new.  Moreover until fairly recently many people, even health professionals, did not even know the right questions to ask to identify a potential brain injury.  For instance, if a high school athlete is concussed in a game today, the coach and athletic trainer often have a protocol to follow to ensure proper health management.  Twenty years ago, the player would likely have been just given smelling salts, asked if he or she felt “okay” and sent back into the game.  In fact, many states now have mandatory concussion training for coaches and athletic trainers.  This was unheard of just a few years ago.  In the past, people with brain injuries were forced to suffer in the silence of unrecognized deficits.  Now, these brain injuries and their concomitant deficits are more likely to be accurately diagnosed.

Overall, there are many rational reasons why we are “suddenly” hearing about brain injuries in the media, despite these injuries having been an issue in the past.

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: http://tlcrehab.org/