The way we talk about dementia and people living with dementia affects how others view the condition. But why? In the first of this two-part series on the importance of using appropriate language when talking about dementia and those living with it, we delve into why words have such an impact on our perception.
When words are casually said over and over, they often become a part of our everyday language, and we might not often stop to think about the implied meaning behind these words, or how they might be hurtful to people.
It’s easy to think that everyone should know what you actually mean and that you don’t have any negative intentions, but the fact is that words are used to provide context to people who might not personally have experienced the impact of dementia, or understand fully the condition, and framing it in a negative way will cause these people to frame the condition negatively from the outset.
The Mental Effect Of Words
Over the past few decades, there has been a big body of research that intends to understand how the human brain works and the associations it makes. Using the research available, psychologists and behavioural economists, among other disciplines, have categorised our thinking into two systems.
System 1 can be referred to as the “Feely Brain”; this part of the brain operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. It is responsible for most of our day to day actions and is why activities such as walking, reading, and understanding the nuances of social situations comes to us naturally.
System 2 is our “Thinky Brain”; this part of our brain helps to allocate attention to mental activities that demand effort, and represents our conscious, reasoning self that makes decisions, solves complex mathematical calculations and helps us complete complicated tasks like parking and writing.
Our Feely Brain has developed over the millions of years as we have evolved, and includes many natural skills that are shared with other animals. In comparison, our Thinky Brain is relatively young and immature, and tends to be lazy and uninvolved unless prompted. As a result, our Feely Brain plays a large part in guiding our thinking, and tends to end up making simplistic connections.
This becomes particularly obvious when it comes to language. Evidence has shown that our Feely Brain takes charge in producing a response to words freely, without much active effort needed on our part. Called associative activation, seeing or hearing a word can bring about an idea, which then triggers many other ideas. This torrent of activity happens very quickly, and produces a series, or a pattern of cognitive, emotional, and physical responses. In short, we respond to words without even realising it.
Once we understand the unconscious effects that words have in our brains, it becomes easier to understand why it’s important to be more thoughtful in the words used to describe dementia, or how our loved ones with the condition are impacted.
Language And Stigma
Negative words are also a barrier to help-seeking, and can prevent people with dementia from seeking a formal diagnosis or getting assistance that can empower them to carry on with their day-to-day activities more independently.
It is normal to not want to be associated with the negative labels attached to a condition; referring the way we talk about dementia has a direct effect on how people living with the condition feel, and also has a profound effect on society. As discovered in a nationwide survey by Alzheimer’s Disease Association (ADA) and Singapore Management University (SMU) in 2019, many of those living with dementia and their caregivers feel stigmatised due to their condition.
One of the ways in which we make this better and reduce dementia stigma is to be more conscious of the words that we use when talking about the condition and its impact. Calling someone with dementia “demented” is demeaning and derogatory, and taking away their dignity as an individual and reducing them to their condition.
When talking about the impact of dementia, it’s important to be realistic about its impact without being pessimistic or disempowering. Instead of describing it as hopeless, it is less stigmatising to acknowledge that dementia has a challenging impact. In reframing the impact with these words, it becomes easier to explain that with support from the community and loved ones, those with dementia can still lead dignified lives and overcome the challenges.
By being conscious to use appropriate language when referring to dementia, we also help to frame the mindset of the wider community who might not have as much personal experience with the condition. Instead of creating a negative perception of the condition, the use of words that emphasise on the dignity of every person with dementia is an important step towards helping others see the individual beyond the condition, and contribute towards a more dementia-friendly community. Check out ADA’s guide to appropriate language for dementia and see how you can make a difference.