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Arnold School of Public Health


COMD student advocates for improved communication and care for advanced dementia patients

May 12, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Kristie Kannaley thinks that dementia patients get a bad rap. “There’s this stereotype that they are ‘crazy’ or that they can’t remember anything at all,” says the Master of Speech Pathology student. “I think there is this prominent idea that there’s nothing anyone can do to help patients with advanced dementia, as it is a chronic and progressive neurodegenerative disease.”

While traditional rehabilitative therapy may not be appropriate for some patients with dementia, Kannaley believes that speech-language pathologists can lead the way in changing perceptions about what can and should be done for dementia patients. Specifically, they can enhance these individuals’ plans of care by educating patients, family members, and medical professionals. This education might include compensatory strategies that help address cognitive deficits, techniques for feeding the patient safely, and establishing communication among all parties.

I think there is this prominent idea that there’s nothing anyone can do to help patients with advanced dementia, as it is a chronic and progressive neurodegenerative disease.

-Kristie Kannaley, MSP Student

Kannaley, who also has a master’s degree in linguistics from UofSC, realized the scope of impact made by speech-language pathologists during her clinical rotations through her program in the Arnold School’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD). With patients experiencing frequent changes in medical staff and room locations, these and other rehabilitation specialists provide continuity of care.

As a speech-language pathology student in an inpatient setting, Kannaley saw the same patients several times a week. “These individuals were at different stages of the disease—from recent diagnosis to advanced dementia, so you really have to be on your game,” says Kannaley. “No amount of education can prepare you for staring into the eyes of an 89-year-old man who is fully aware that he is losing his cognitive abilities and questioning his self-worth because of it.”

Kannaley describes moments when she, as a student clinician, becomes aware that the patient is experiencing his or her full cognitive presence. In these charged, though often brief, encounters, the patients are able to fully be who they were before the disease—in mind and presence. “These are some of the strongest moments of connection I have ever experienced with other human beings,” Kannaley says.

These individuals were at different stages of the disease—from recent diagnosis to advanced dementia, so you really have to be on your game.

-Kristie Kannaley, MSP Student

In addition to her clinical experiences, Kannaley’s research experiences within the Arnold School have also played a role in shaping her approach to working with patients who have dementia. Arnold School mentors have influenced the Grosswirth-Salny Scholarship recipient as well.

She has been a graduate research assistant with COMD Professor Julius Fridriksson’s Aphasia Laboratory since she began her program in 2015. “He’s continually offered me the perfect balance of support and freedom to work my way through challenging research questions,” she says of Fridriksson. 

“Dr. Dirk den Ouden is a true advocate for student research and is always willing to talk me through any twists and turns in the research that I’m unsure of,” Kannaley says of Den Ouden, who is a COMD associate professor and director of the Neurolinguistics Laboratory.

Sarah Scarborough guided Kannaley through learning to effectively work with neurogenic populations during rotations at the USC Speech and Hearing Research Center. “Her depth of knowledge on neurogenic speech and language disorders, combined with her experiences working with unique cases, has played a major role in the development of my clinical skills,” Kannaley says. “She also encourages me to try new ideas in therapy sessions.”

Sometimes, just providing them with education about what’s going on with their loved one or taking a moment to listen to them vent is just what the patient and/or family needs to feel a little more empowered in their situations.

-Kristie Kannaley, MSP Student

In another part of the Arnold School, Kannaley found a mentor in Daniela Friedman, professor and chair of the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB). The two met when Kannaley joined the South Carolina Healthy Brain Research Network Collaborating Center, which Friedman directs. As a Graduate Scholar, Kannaley is immersed in the Center’s public health research efforts, which provide her with valuable insights on current trends in dementia science, such as caregiver support and educational outreach—two areas that underpin her advocacy efforts to transform perspectives and approaches to dementia care.

“Currently, I am working on a thematic analysis of blogs written by dementia caregivers and care recipients in order to identify some of the shared experiences, coping mechanisms, and potential needs of this population,” says Kannaley. “I hope to contribute to the bridging of clinical practice and research science in dementia care; sometimes, it seems like clinicians and researchers are working toward the similar goals but living in different worlds.”

To help bridge these areas, Kannaley has been focusing her educational and scholarship activities on advocating continued and customized care for patients with dementia. She presented her blog research at Discover USC, and she will share her findings at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London this summer with funding from the national Alzheimer’s Association specifically for Healthy Brain Research Network Scholars and from the COMD department and Arnold School Dean’s Office.

She has also developed a presentation aimed at educating speech-language pathologists on the benefits of customizing care for dementia patients and the specific ways in which caregivers and clinicians can enhance communication and care for patients to improve their quality of life.

After Kannaley wraps up her final clinical rotation this summer, she will graduate in August and then begin the profession’s nine-month clinical fellowship requirement—ideally in an acute care hospital setting. “I enjoy being able to support patients and their families during some of the most intense moments of their lives,” says Kannaley. “Sometimes, just providing them with education about what’s going on with their loved one or taking a moment to listen to them vent is just what the patient and/or family needs to feel a little more empowered in their situations.”