The power of positive language


Tom Brenner is a gerontologist who works as a researcher and educator for the Department on Aging, State of Illinois. Karen Brenner is a Montessori educator and writer. The Brenners have had articles published in journals and magazines in both the US and the UK. They are writers for the blogs, The Alzheimer's Reading Room and Fisher Alzheimer's Research Blog. Tom and Karen have written a book about their work with people living with Alzheimer's and are looking forward to its publication in the next few months. The Brenner's have combined their experience and expertise to form Brenner Pathways, an educational and consulting company.

Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman to become a physician in Italy and the founder of The Montessori educational method, was also a pioneer in the use of positive language. Her message to parents and teachers at first seems so simple. Instead of saying to a child, ‘Don’t be stupid’, say, ‘Please be wise.’ Instead of saying, ‘Stop running!’ say, ‘Please walk.’

When we use positive language, this one seemingly simple change from negative to positive, can impact everything in our lives. The use of positive language can change a parent or teacher from being a nag, or a scold into a mentor, a coach. With positive language, we demonstrate that we believe that children can and will make good choices.

As with many universal truths, what seems so simple and so obvious is also difficult and profound. It is not easy to turn our language patterns around. It takes a lot of thought and even more effort to break the habits of a life time, but if we can just try being conscious of using positive language, we will begin to see very real differences in our lives.

This is especially true when caring for someone who is living with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. We use the Montessori Method as the foundation for the memory support program that we have created for people who have Alzheimer’s. Using positive language can make a real difference in the lives of caregivers and the people they care for. When we work with someone who is living with dementia, we try to find the remaining strengths and spared abilities of that person.

Building on these strengths and spared abilities, we can find ways to connect to that person, to reach people who sometimes seem unreachable. Using positive language is a huge part of this program. We can turn “Oh, mom, you know you can’t drive anymore!” into, “Let’s go for a walk, mom.” We can tell the people we are caring for that we enjoyed being with them today or that we like the sound of their laughter. Positive language doesn't mean patronizing language; compliments or encouraging words should be real and heartfelt. Even on the worst days, in the most difficult of circumstances, if we look deeply enough, if we try hard enough, there is always something positive that we can say to the person we care for.

Dr. Montessori never told people what to expect when they tried her method, she wisely knew that people have to experience the results for themselves. We encourage everyone reading this article to try the use of positive language in all of your relationships; and most especially when caring for someone living with Alzheimer’s. Before we pass judgment on others, before we lecture or scold, Dr. Montessori asked us to stop and answer these three questions about our own words:

Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

© Tom and Karen Brenner 2011

Last Updated: 11/08/2017