Aging/Gerontology, News, Social Work/Helping Profession/Mental Health

The Power and Importance of Language

By Victoria Brewster, MSW

Language-what does this one word mean to you? What does it say to you? How do you define it?

As one who works with older adults (50+), language is important no matter what setting I am in. Language plays a crucial role in shaping the culture of aging and aging services. We learn from other fields and have seen how words matter and can be a source of both good and harm. What a person is called creates expectations about their behavior. Traditional terms that have characterized speech in the aging services reveal culturally embedded ways of talking/speaking that infantilize, subordinate, marginalize and otherwise dishonor elders.

Here is an example, Elderspeak: “An intergenerational communication style that is common in interactions between staff and residents in long term care settings, infantilization or secondary baby talk:

• Simplified vocabulary and grammar

• Shortened sentences (presuming that the elder can’t process a sentence that is the
length of regular adult speech)

• Slowed speech

• Elevated pitch and volume

• Inappropriately intimate terms of endearment

• Diminutives (nicknames or calling someone named William Bill or Billy), inappropriately intimate nominal reference she’s my baby or that’s my girl or calling an elder sweetie or good girl.

• Collective (plural) nouns substitute the plural reference (Are we ready for our bath?) Where a singular form is grammatically correct (Do you want to take a bath now?) which implies that the elder cannot act independently

* Tag questions or pseudo-questions that prompt the elders’ response, suggesting his/her inability to choose (You want to get up now, don’t you?)
(Adapted from: Williams, et. al., (2009). Elderspeak communication: Impact on Dementia care. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias. 2009; 24, 1; 11-20.)

As a society, we need to replace dehumanizing language with language that communicates honor, inclusion, partnership and equality. Language is important because of what it communicates and in how many ways it
does it.

We can talk to, at, through, with, about, around and despite other people and events. The words we use and how they convey our thoughts open our inner worlds of meaning to our audience.

I choose to work with older adults (notice I am replacing the typical word of senior or elderly) as I like working with this segment or demographic. I see older adults as ‘walking history’ as ‘mentors’ and my equals.

Think of all that an older adult at the age of 95 has lived through! Electricity, WWI, the telephone, Women’s Vote, Prohibition, The Great Depression, WWII, television, Civil Right’s, the Vietnam War, Feminism, further world genocides, AIDS, more wars, the introduction of the internet, email, cell phones, social media…..

My generation can brag about the internet, email, cell phones, social media and the more recent genocides and wars—not so much!

Older adults should be treated and spoken to with dignity, respect, and in proper age appropriate language.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word
is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
– Mark Twain

*The Pioneering Networking Newsletter is a wonderful resource.

*http://pioneernetwork.net/Data/Documents/PowerofLanguage7-9-1.pdf