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I always loved gerontology. When I was younger, I didn't know what “gerontology” was. Actually, it was not until college that I discovered one could obtain a degree in gerontology—I just thought that studying aging was a fun pastime, not a career move.
During my sophomore year in college I took a class called “Psychology of Aging.” I loved that class. Really, it inspired me to begin working on my Master’s in Gerontology after graduating with my Bachelor’s in Psychology.
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Through my years studying aging, spending time with older adults, and growing in this field, I found a few words and phrases that I hate.
1. Elderly. In gerontology, we try to use the phrase “older adults” to describe the older population. The word elderly implies that people who are aging are weak and feeble. It implies that they cannot do for themselves anymore. This label needs to disappear from our vocabulary.
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2. Frail. “Frail” is usually used in conjunction with “elderly”, for example, “She’s getting to be so frail and elderly.” While it means that a person may be feeling weak or sick, there are other, more appropriate words that we could use to describe a person’s health. No one wants to be frail.
3. Senile. This one really gets me. Saying that someone is “senile” is like saying that someone “died from consumption.” It is an old, old phrase that does not mean anything medical anymore. People used to say “senile” when referring to a person with dementia. When we did not know much about dementia, “senile” became the all-encompassing term for aging with cognitive loss. We know better now.
4, Insane. First of all, there is no psychological definition for “insanity.” Insanity is a legal term that was created by lawyers to define a person who was, permanently or temporarily, unable to control their own actions. It is a legal defense. No one should be labeled as “insane” in a medical sense. Sometimes you will hear people talk about adults with dementia in this way, such as, “She was acting really insane.” “Insane” does not tell us anything about a person’s condition.
5. Demented. Okay so, technically, this word is still accurate. You can describe a person as being “demented” when they have dementia. To me, though, it just feels like using the word “retarded.”
“Demented” is a label, and a cruel label at that. I hear it used a lot by medical professionals, but I think it is important to use person-first language when talking about disease. Person-first language means that the person has the disease, not that the disease has the person. For example, saying that someone “has dementia” is a lot nicer than saying that a person “is demented.” Dementia is not that person’s whole life. Dementia is a disease that the person has.
Maybe you think that, in the grand scheme of things, these phrases do not matter. That perhaps I am picking them apart and dissecting them for no reason. Think about the way that the Western world perceives getting older: it is not positive.
By changing the way that we talk about gerontology, maybe we could change the way that we perceive it. There are over a million words in the English language—and we couldn't pick a few different ones to describe aging?
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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s of Science in Gerontology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She works as a Memory Care Program Coordinator and Manager at Clare Bridge of Burlington in Burlington, NC.
Rachael also writes on her own blog at Dementia By Day.
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