When families discuss their loved ones’ health and need for senior care, the words they use hold tremendous weight. Adverse terminology like “disabled,” “incompetent,” and even “suffer” create fear, isolation, and an inability to see seniors for what they can still do, says Stephanie Erickson, a family caregiving expert and host of the Caregivers’ Circle radio program.
Here, Erickson offers insight on the power of language and its impact on the aging and senior living experience.
As a social worker who has guided thousands of families through caregiving decisions, Erickson is no stranger to the complexities of the process. She wholeheartedly believes that the way we talk about aging and senior living shapes the way we experience it.
“Our words directly impact the way in which we perceive, evaluate, and respond to a situation,” she says. “When we use words that are positively biased, we can see people for who they are, not who they are not. This will allow us to find creative ways to improve, foster, and support abilities.”
Doing so, she says, makes families feel more hopeful and less afraid of the aging process, which in turn helps them advocate for their loved ones and connect with them as human beings rather than objects to be “placed” in a senior living facility.
“When our words change, our mindset follows,” says Erickson.
Positive vs. Negative Language
You can implement this change in language immediately, whether you have a loved one living with dementia or a number of other challenges.
“If I say my mom suffers from dementia, I immediately lock her into all the negativity that word triggers and imagine her sitting in the corner unresponsive,” explains Erickson. “If I say she has a diagnosis of dementia, I am immediately letting everyone know that this is just one part of her.”
For families seeking specific guidance, Erickson offers examples of adverse terms to avoid, along with words to replace negatively biased language:
- Disabled abilities with challenges
- Suffer live with/have a diagnosis of
- Place move/relocate/change residences
- Lost/disappearing/deteriorating changing/evolving
- Incompetent residual capacities
The fact is positive word choice helpfully alters the viewpoints of seniors and their families for the better.
“If health care professionals focus on capacities and abilities, families begin to see their loved one positively, and the senior feels valuable and engaged in life,” says Erickson.
Shifting the Mindset on Aging
Making a simple shift in language also has the benefit of helping families embrace the aging process rather than fearing the natural changes.
“Aging has so many treasures,” says Erickson. “When we evolve, we know ourselves and the world so much more than in our youth and have much to offer the younger generations. If we can learn to embrace what is natural and see the joy within our evolution, over time I believe our support and care systems will follow. A shift in language is one place to start.”
To naysayers who believe this is a minor issue of semantics and not one that will truly make a difference for seniors and their families, Erickson offers the following insight:
“If I tell you that something is impossible or that anything is possible, which do you want to hear? If I tell you that you are a joy for whom to provide care or that you are a burden, what feels better?”
“Language and words always matter,” she says. “When we are positive and open to see individuals of all ages as able, competent, and valuable, the world will be a better place for us all.”
VIDEO: Watch Stephanie Erickson’s thirteen-minute TEDx talk—“We Are What We Say, so Why Not Say Something Different?”