Cousins and Cognition Looking for new ways to aid clients’ mental recovery following brain injury? Try genealogical research, suggests one speech-language pathologist. Have You Tried This?
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Have You Tried This?  |   September 01, 2017
Cousins and Cognition
Author Notes
  • Linda L. Garrity, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist in the Outpatient Therapy Department at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. She has more than 30 years’ experience working with pediatric and adult patients with a wide range of disorders and diagnoses. lgarrity@partners.org
    Linda L. Garrity, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist in the Outpatient Therapy Department at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. She has more than 30 years’ experience working with pediatric and adult patients with a wide range of disorders and diagnoses. lgarrity@partners.org×
Article Information
Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Traumatic Brain Injury / Have You Tried This?
Have You Tried This?   |   September 01, 2017
Cousins and Cognition
The ASHA Leader, September 2017, Vol. 22, 40-41. doi:10.1044/leader.HYTT.22092017.40
The ASHA Leader, September 2017, Vol. 22, 40-41. doi:10.1044/leader.HYTT.22092017.40
My journey into genealogical research began with a conversation among my husband, his sister and brother-in-law, and me. We wondered why no one in my husband’s immediate family had investigated much family history—and thought it would be fun to try.
We started right away, and have discovered at least one new family connection every day. I quickly realized this painstaking process requires complex cognitive activity—involving memory, decision-making, problem-solving, attention, organization, sequencing and planning.
As a speech-language pathologist working with patients recovering from stroke and traumatic brain injury, I was extremely interested in this cognitive aspect. I am always looking for ways to strengthen my patients’ cognitive skills, and genealogical research seemed like a terrific way to provide a brain-building activity in a fun way to try to help them. Interested in doing the same with your patients? Here is what I have learned from my work with this population.

Urge patients to remember stories or bits of stories told by parents or grandparents to help them sort out facts and people.

Getting started
To get a patient started with genealogical research, begin with information about them and their immediate family—facts known (or thought to be known) about birth dates, places lived, marriages or immigration. I recommend using a website or app like Ancestry.com to help access documents and records related to these family facts. The site builds a family tree, starting from a small root of information and branching out to often-unexpected people and places.
A word of warning: Give patients a heads-up that the documents they find are not always legitimate family records. Similar names and birth dates may lead them to nonrelatives. Records like marriage and death certificates, ship manifests, and census forms were all created by people who did not always spell correctly or write clearly. These factors require the client to use problem-solving, logic and reasoning to determine if the document represents an actual relative.
Urge patients to remember stories or bits of stories told by parents or grandparents to help them sort out facts and people. Advise them to make sure that the person connected to a certain relative is the right one, because family names can be similar—and pursuing wrong names can lead to dead ends in research.
Once the patient has gathered a critical mass of family facts, they can organize their family tree and map important dates (marriages, births, moves to different cities). This activity helps patients practice organizational and sequencing skills—I recommend that they take precise notes to help with this.

Persistence, diligence and sustained attention are needed to successfully complete this research. Time-management is also key.

Mental flexing
Conducting genealogical research often requires cognitive flexibility, as patients sort through options and zero in on correct names. Patients may need to peruse a variety of documents not necessarily directly involving the target relative. For example, census lists may reveal names of in-laws, neighbors or cousins who can possibly connect the patient with their target relative.
Persistence, diligence and sustained attention are needed to successfully complete this research. Time-management is also key, as patients need to balance this task with performance of their regular daily responsibilities or errands. Concentration is important, but obsessive focus on any one thing can be unhealthy. This is no exception.
Some patients may lose track of time and get lost in the seemingly endless search for more and more family history and connections. To prevent this, I recommend that patients use a timer or alarm to limit their daily researching time.
Along their genealogical journey, patients can learn as much about events in history as they do about family—and even themselves. When using genealogical websites and apps, they find information about historical events and the places their family members lived. They may even get to connect with family members they have never met. One patient was excited to find out that he had a relative who lived nearby whom he had never known about.
Despite the time-consuming and sometimes frustrating aspects of genealogical research, most patients I work with find it a highly rewarding pursuit. For me, finding facts about my husband’s family has helped to start conversations with older family members, who share stories and memories that they have not recalled or told in a long time. It makes for an enjoyable way to connect with those from the past, as well as those who are living in the present.
Ultimately, for clinicians, genealogical research is an excellent way to address higher-level executive skills using a complex, multifaceted, motivating and fun activity. In addition to executive skills, I have found that it is an effective means of informally evaluating a person’s frustration tolerance, as well as their functional reading comprehension. Once my patients have learned the features of the various websites, they have been able to carry out some of their own research with much less assistance from others.
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September 2017
Volume 22, Issue 9