In recent years we have seen a tremendous shift in the languages we use to describe other people. Words that were once tossed around with little regard, but belittled many of those around us are no longer acceptable. Instead we lean towards language that speaks to the individual rather than highlighting the disability, impairment, sexual orientation or race/national origin. This is especially true in the field of social work and non profit where we have gone to great pains to increase inclusion and minimize marginalization. Yet there is one word that is used among well-meaning individuals that I think needs to be addressed. Demented. Each week I talk to a handful of social workers, case managers, nurses, family members and even my own coworkers who frequently say something like “she is demented” when describing someone who is experiencing the effects of cognitive loss. Even though I have heard this terminology for almost five years I still cringe when I hear these well-meaning, but painful words.
We can do better. When I think of the word demented I think of rapists, murders, despots and heinous criminal. What doesn’t come to mind? Elderly individuals who are struggling to cope with their new world as each day a part of their short term memory is taken from them by dementia. Certainly not my own grandma.
I know old habits die hard, especially those that are well meaning and without malice, but I think that changing our language around this point is about more than words. Altering the way we refer to a community of people (currently 5.5 million Americans have a diagnosis of dementia) impacts the way that they are viewed by the word. This is critical in a time where funds allocated for dementia research are dwarfed by other areas like cancer, heart disease and diabetes prevention despite the fact that we expect a dramatic increase in cases of dementia over the coming decades.
Instead of saying “demented” I offer some alternatives when referring to someone who may have been diagnosed with dementia.
- Experiencing dementia
- Living with dementia
- Coping with cognitive loss
Initially we are all going to trip over our words until they become our own, but I am sure that you can come up with many more caring and well intentioned options that work for your particular situation. They key here is to focus on the person not the disease, ailment, drug or aid they happen to require in order to navigate life. Try this out for a week and be sure to come back and tell me how it went in the comment section.