The Language of Aging and Dementia
“Words are things. They get on the walls, and your clothes, and finally in to you.” – Maya Angelou, American poet
If we are fortunate enough, we will all reach old age some day. Because of medical advances we are living longer than ever before and yet for many, growing older is an undesired option. Think about how the birthday greeting card industry pokes fun at aging. Psychology professor Todd Nelson of California State University Stanislaus, writing in the Journal of Social Issues, believes that while these messages are “couched in jokes and humour, society is clearly saying one thing: getting old is bad”. You only have to look to the stereotypical portrayal of older characters in media or the rise of the anti-aging industry to see how older adults are commonly viewed through a lens of decline and diminished value.
Ageism and the Rise of Discrimination
Age discrimination is one of the most tolerated forms of discrimination in this country. There is however one thing that we can all do to stop the toxicity of ageism from spreading: become aware of our words.
Ageism manifests itself in subtle ways each day that threaten the quality of life of older people. This includes the ways we communicate. The effects of the words we choose can have a monumental impact. Consider the words we use to describe older adults and individuals with dementia: senile, weak, forgetful, burden, dependent, lonely, slow and depressed. These terms share a negative focus that offers a narrow view of what later life or a diagnosis of dementia entails.
Words Shape Our Beliefs and Ultimately Our Actions
These negative words can have a real effect on the way we treat older adults and people with dementia. Labels like ‘burden’ come with baggage that affect how people feel and think about themselves. They can limit people’s potential and lead to withdrawal.
In an effort to help staff at United Active Living understand the impact of their words, I’ve worked in collaboration with United Minds Coordinator, Mariana Hudson to develop an in-house education session on the power of language.
We began by asking staff to brainstorm as many terms as they could think of to describe older adults and people with dementia. Not surprisingly, many of the terms identified were negative in nature. The group then discussed how language had affected them in their lives. Those in attendance shared the hurtful impact of being teased for their complexion, cultural heritage or their quiet disposition.
We can all relate to the harmful effects of being reduced to a label at one point in our lives or another. When we are defined by words like ‘weird’, ‘shy’ or ‘blonde’– our individuality is ignored. Similarly, recognizing an older adult as an individual with strengths and positive characteristics becomes a challenge when we only focus on problems or stereotypes.
How Can We Change the Discourse?
Reframing is a method we can use to help us see the positive in situations and change the way we feel. It can be extremely helpful to reveal hidden strengths and cope with challenges we face. As an example, the way the weather is presented can affect our interpretation of the day. If we are told it will be mostly cloudy we prepare for the worst whereas a partly sunny day offers us hope.
Redefining Aging as a Time of Opportunity and Growth
With that in mind, we concluded the staff education session with an activity that asked staff to reframe some of the common terms about older adults and people with dementia.
Staff creatively reframed the commonly used stereotype of having a ‘senior moment’ to ‘soul searching’ and the behavioural term ‘challenging’ to ‘being a leader’.
Changing the way we talk about aging and dementia will have an impact on our interactions with older adults and their quality of life.
It can be difficult to change mindsets but we can all start by understanding the impact that our words have on others and consciously choosing to use more positive empowering language about older adults and people with dementia.
Ageism – Rethinking Our View of Getting Older
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