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Dementia and the Importance of Person-Centred Language
By: Aaron Brown, Communications Specialist

As a society, we are growing more socially conscious in order to help many formerly alienated groups feel included and accepted. Obviously, this is a good development overall, but it can pose challenges for some. As an example, a lot of Canadians aren’t quite sure how to communicate with people living with dementia.

It is why bringing attention to the words we use when talking about dementia is important. Our words are just as impactful as our actions. The use of negative or discriminative slang, no matter how it is intended, can make someone who is already on a difficult journey feel stigmatized and unaccepted by others.

In a 2018 survey, 51% of Canadians polled admitted to using dementia stigmatizing language, whether it be telling dementia-related jokes or referring to someone as ‘senile’ or ‘demented’. Historically, language used to describe dementia has been mostly negative. Words like ‘suffering’ and ‘victim’ are used, highlighting the losses associated with the journey and contributing to stereotypes that focus on weakness and incapacity. What is implied by this language is that a life with dementia is not worth living and that people with dementia have nothing to contribute.

Person-centred language, however, puts things back into perspective. The concept of person-centred language revolves around using words and terms that keep the person at the forefront. Calling someone ‘demented’, for example, is offensive as it puts the emphasis on the dementia instead of the person. If we instead refer to them as a ‘person living with dementia’ they are not identified primarily by the disease but instead as a person who also happens to have dementia.

This awareness of language expands to describing actions as well. When talking about a behaviour of a person living with dementia, try not to generalize it by saying they were ‘acting out’ or being ‘aggressive’, instead give a specific description of their actions; e.g. ‘the person strikes out when asked to undress’. When referring to someone who provides care, try ‘care partner’ as opposed to ‘caregiver’, as it is more inclusive of the person who has been diagnosed.

‘Try’ is a key word here – we all make mistakes. But if we can all make a conscious effort to use more inclusive language and understand why it’s important to do so, we ensure that persons impacted by dementia feel valued and less stigmatized.

You can learn more about person centred language at bit.ly/personcentredlanguage.

 

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