Tuesday Tips for Caregivers ~ Person-Centered Language and Alzheimer’s

Tuesday Tips for Caregivers ~ Person-Centered Language and Alzheimer’s

Person-Centered Language and Alzheimer’s

“Person-centered language” is a way of speaking about mental health that does not privilege an illness over the person. Throughout history (and even today), there has been a stigma around mental health issues. There are many variables that influence why mental health has often been overlooked or taken less seriously than other illnesses. One reason can be because mental health is “invisible” whereas other medical-related problems are “visible”, meaning you can see when someone is physically injured, which prompts sympathy and immediate care, but you can’t necessarily see that someone is depressed, anxious, or experiencing memory loss. Yet, this distinction between “invisible” and “visible” is not entirely true, because if you really pay attention to others, you can often see signs and symptoms that something may be wrong.

Person-centered language is a way to talk about your loved one or refer to yourself without framing your entire personhood around an illness. For example, the term “Alzheimer’s patient” subsumes the individual under the category of the illness. It is better to use the term “person with Alzheimer’s” because this gives you a sense that this individual is made up more of just the disorder they have. In other words, this is “person first” language, placing the person above whatever illness or disorder they have. Person-centered language also means doing away with outdated and offensive terms, e.g. “crazy,” “lunatic,” and “demented.” Sometimes, these outdated words are popular across health disciplines and it can take a generation or so for people to realize that they should no longer use them.

For example, consider the word “dementia.” The etymology of dementia traces the word back to Latin demens, which means “out of one’s mind.” Other derogatory meanings of dementia can range from “lunacy” to “insanity.” But, many family caregivers who have a loved one with dementia would probably hesitate to use descriptors like “lunatic” or “insane” to refer to their loved one. Unfortunately, dementia is commonly used today because it is how most health care professions refer to “degenerative neurological disorders.” It will likely take some time for the term to be discarded. In the meantime, you can be the positive start to a new movement by using more person-centered language to talk about people and mental health.

Overall, the person-centered approach attempts to recognize that mental health illnesses do not frame an individual’s entire life. But, this is not to say that mental health should not be prioritized and not taken seriously. Quite the contrary. Person-centered language affirms the value and importance of every individual, while also privileging the need for appropriate mental health and medical assistance.

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