Language is a powerful tool for creating awareness, fighting stigma

September is World Alzheimer’s Month and as part of its #RememberDementia campaign, the Alzheimer Society of B.C. wants to call attention to the power of language – both to reinforce and to fight stigma.

Language can perpetuate stigma and stereotypes. Language used to describe Alzheimer's disease and other dementias has historically been largely negative, focusing on the losses experienced by the person living with dementia. While these losses are real, this negative framing has contributed to perceptions and approaches to care that focus on weakness rather than strength, illness rather than wellness and victims rather than whole persons. So, for example, the Society prefers the term “person with dementia” to a “dementia sufferer” or someone “afflicted” with the disease.

“We advocate for a person-centred approach to the language of dementia, and the disease in general,” says Maria Howard, Alzheimer Society of B.C. CEO. “There is so much work to be done to raise awareness and encourage compassion about the disease. We’ve all heard someone make an ‘Alzheimer’s joke’ about being forgetful. This perpetuates the stigma felt by people with dementia and their families. We don’t make the same kind of jokes about cancer or another serious disease.”

But language can also offer space for awareness and growth. With her memoir, The Long Hello, Vancouver author Cathie Borrie shares her experience with her mother’s dementia in the form of brief, lyrical vignettes that create a magical voice and weave humour and insight into an honest, raw, and beautiful story. “As her dementia progressed, my mother became a poet and said the most amazing things, and I think it was the poet in her that released the writer in me,” says Borrie. “My mother taught me that her spirit continued, the soul of her persisted, and she invited me to stay connected and loving in whatever way I could. I tried to do this with song and music, through touch, by following her lead, by taping her voice – and finally by offering her story, our story, in The Long Hello.”

We’ll continue the conversation here on our website and on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Last Updated: 11/08/2017