Dementia expert highlights impact of language on people


Dr. Sherry Dupuis sheds light on how people with dementia react to certain words

Thursday, April 24, 2014 — Deron Hamel

TORONTO – The language we use when referring to people with dementia directly impacts how the disease and those living with it are perceived. Therefore, we need to think carefully about the words we use.

This was dementia expert Dr. Sherry Dupuis’ message to caregivers attending a panel discussion on quality at the Ontario Long Term Care Association (OLTCA)/Ontario Retirement Communities Association (ORCA) 2014 Together We Care convention and trade show.

Dupuis, an Alzheimer’s disease and dementia expert at the University of Waterloo, underscored that many people living with cognitive impairment are aware of negative language surrounding their condition – and hearing such language can have a detrimental impact.

Words like disruptive, screamer, wanderer, non-compliant and aggressive cast a light on the disease and not the person affected by it, Dupuis told the audience at the April 1 session. In short, Dupuis says that when these types of words are used to describe people living with dementia, their humanity is taken away. The picture we’re left with is not of a person but of a body to be managed.

“Persons with dementia are very much aware of the implications of this approach on their lives,” Dupuis explained. “The consequences (of using negative language) are profound and harmful in many ways.”

Through her research, Dupuis has heard first-hand from people living with dementia about the frustration they have surrounding language that negatively labels people.

“As one person with dementia said, ‘(People) think I can’t do anything. Until they get used to me (and see) what I can still do, many try to take over. (Caregivers) also give me meaningless activities, like tip over all the pens and pencils on the table, mix them up, and then ask me to sort them. That made me really angry. ‘ “

So what can be done to change the perception of people living with dementia? Dupuis says it all comes down to making simple adjustments to the words people use.

For instance, “hoarding” can become “collecting.” “Wandering” can be “exploring.”  Being “disruptive” can be changed to “communicating.”

“Words, gestures and actions have meaning,” Dupuis says.

The annual OLTCA/ORCA Together We Care convention and trade show, which ran March 31 to April 2, is Canada’s largest gathering of long-term care and retirement home professionals.

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