Living with Aphasia: Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

Living with Aphasia: Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks
By Baylis β2
You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. I have heard this saying for many, many years. (Does that make me an old dog?) Over the years, I have observed the difficulty in retraining dogs that have become acclimated to behaving in certain ways. You never heard this saying about cats. I don’t think cats were ever mentioned in the same way because cats are very hard to train in the first place. They train themselves. However, once a cat has settled into a routine, it is extremely difficult to break that routine. We had a cat that we started feeding first thing in the morning. After that, if we didn’t get up when the sun would first rise, this cat would come into our bedroom and gently remind us that it was his feeding time. He would put his face right next to our faces and start rubbing against us or purring.

I have now had first-hand experience with this adage. For many years prior to the hemorrhage in the  blood vessel in the tumor on my brain, I was not the best filer. My filing system has been called clutter. I would have eight to ten piles of papers or journals all around my office. There did not appear to be any rhyme or reason to the piles. However, I was renowned for my memory. I would easily have a dozen jobs in the air at any one time. When someone would come into my office to talk about something, I could inevitably go to the correct pile and within a minute or two, find the document that we needed to discuss. People were amazed that I knew where it was. I can’t do that anymore, although I still have eight to ten piles of papers all around my office at home. However, when I get an idea about how I can update an essay or article that I’m working on, I can’t find the documents. Since I can’t use my former filing system anymore and knowing what it was probably won’t help other people now, I will let you in on my secret of filing prior to the episode. As I said I had a good memory. But I was not remembering exactly where a particular document was. What I doing was constructing those piles according to the day that I worked on the particular project under question. All I had to do was remember what was the last day I had worked on the project. I could go to that pile and find the needed documents.

Since the episode I have tried to put all the documents that I work on in manila file folders and label the file folder. The difficulty that I will have to teach myself to overcome is to now put the file folder away in some semblance of order other than by date. I spent several days this past week alphabetically filing all the file folders that accumulated in my office, first according to author and second by title. It’s amazing what I have found. There were several duplicate files, that if I had been following this procedure all the time, I wouldn’t have had to create. What’s also true, but should not be amazing, is there are some things that I know I worked on but are now lost.

The second lesson that I have learned through this process is that one needs to keep one’s computer files in order also. There are documents I know that I have created but they are nowhere to be found on my computer. I have looked at all the files alphabetically and chronologically, and the documents under question are nowhere to be found. To try to remedy this situation, I first set up a spreadsheet listing all the files I created. The spreadsheet had entries that could be sorted by name of file, author, source (if it was from a journal or website), and date. As I created new files, I entered the information related to that file on the bottom of a front page and copied that front page to various pages that I then sorted by title, author source and date. I know this type of problem and process is more suited to data bases. Why did I use a spreadsheet and not a data base? I have always been more comfortable setting up spreadsheets than data bases. The old dog is barking again. I have learned the hard way this is more of a data base problem than a spreadsheet problem. The last two times I sorted the pages of the spreadsheet I didn’t make sure that I was sorting the whole page, and I found I was mixing up file titles with the wrong source or date. This week I believe that I will have to step out and try two new tricks. The first is to create sub-files on my computer and file documents in an appropriate sub-file. The second is to create a data base for my files. Next week I will report on my success or failure.

In our adult Sunday school class this past week we were discussing Abraham and someone asked the question: “Why do we seem to learn more from failures than successes?” Another individual brought up the example of Thomas Edison. After more than 100 attempts to construct a working light bulb, someone asked him if he was discouraged. I think his response can help us. He is reported to have answered the question by saying, “No, I am not discouraged. I now know 100 ways that won’t work. I won’t use any of them again and I can try something else.”

As I live with my aphasia and memory problems, I am collecting a whole set of practices that I now know I won’t have to try again. I won’t have to make those mistakes again. I have also learned the secret to teaching old dogs new tricks. It is actually quite simple. KEEP AT IT; DON’T GIVE INTO IMPULSES OR WHIMS. The minute you let the old dog revert to his old behavioral patterns, you have to essentially start over again with the training. With that in mind, I decided to try practicing some of the new filing techniques this week. How is it going? The best I can say is that it is going, but not as well as I had hoped. I must admit I have had to resolve to start over twice and I must also admit that I failed in setting up a working data base. Old habits (Old tricks) are hard to shake off. What actually are old habits? They are engraved patterns of behavior, etched into the synaptic paths of our brain. To construct a new habit, we must break down and eliminate as much as possible the old habits. What we know from brain research is that unless the paths are completely eliminated by damage to the brain, those paths are still there. We can make new dominant paths but the old paths are still there, and the individual can easily revert to those paths. It’s similar to putting a new roof on a house, you really should remove the old shingles before you put the new shingles on. If you don’t, the new shingles will not always as effective as they should be and you will have to replace them much sooner than you normally would. If you have read my first blog on living with aphasia, it’s all about the story of perfect practice making perfect. The amateur practices until he gets it right once. But that’s not enough. Chances are, when the next opportunity to make that play or perform that number occurs he’ll get wrong again. The professional practices until he can’t do it wrong. The muscles are locked into particular movements and the individual just does them naturally.
I have just discovered a new (new to me) site for aphasia patients and caregivers. It is a blog entitled Aphasia Corner. It can be found at
I invite you to look them up. Someone involved Aphasia Corner has my type of humor. QUESTION: What is aphasia? ANSWER: It is the weapon on Star Trek used to blow up enemies. You don’t ever want to lose your sense of humor. Even in the toughest of times, a laugh can be medicine for the soul.


About By Baylis β2

Ph.D. in mathematics; 40 years as an instructor and administrator in Christiian colleges & Universities; principle writer & initial director of critically acclaimed assessment project "Taking Values Seriously:Assessing the Mission of Church-Related Collges." Currently medically retired on disability due to traumatic brain episode which began with a blood vessel in a brain tumor exploding in March 2009, causing the tumor to implode creating many stroke-like symptoms; the remains of the benign tumor removed in March 2009 followed by many months of intenesive therapy that shifted gears when 4 tonic-clonic seizures in December 2009 left me unconscious in the hospitable for four days. I am now diagnosed with aphasia, epilepsy, Atrial Fibrillation, and the beginning stages of Parkinson's. Since I can't work a normal job in higher education, I spend my days reading, thinking and writing about higher education, epilespsy and aphasia. I have a blog, entitled By' Musings, in which I speak about topics of great interest to me: aphasia, epilesy, Parkinson's, higher education and religion. This blog canl be accessed through the URL of which is included in this profile.
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One Response to Living with Aphasia: Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

  1. Has anyone tried FindTheWord software for aiding communication?

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