Language surrounding “Alzheimer’s”

Driving home the other day, I turned on the radio and caught the end of a radio news broadcast concerning “Alzheimer’s.” (Note: I put the quotes around Alzheimer’s because my experience is that this term is too often loosely thrown around as a label or confirmed diagnosis, both by non-professionals as well as human service workers and even doctors, though there is no way to definitively diagnose it [see here or here or here for example] before someone’s death. At most, “Alzheimer’s”-like symptoms may be able to be identified in a particular person. Because it has become such a terrifying label to many people and is used to justify dead-talking people as well as other extreme measures, I try not to use it when other terms [senility for example] may be just as descriptive while hopefully somewhat less fear-inducing and/or devaluing.)

Back to the radio news show: I was taken aback by the use of language that basically served to cast certain people into devalued roles and to stir up fears and devaluing attitudes in the listening audience. Some of the language I heard in a quick radio segment included words and phrases such as

• victims

• suffering

• drain on economy

• burden

• prevent suffering

• fade to darkness

And so on. Obviously, this was not an exhaustive, scientific nor even intentional survey. I just happened onto that radio segment. Nonetheless, this is at least in part my point. Social Role Valorization describes how language communicates certain roles, images, expectations and thus contributes to creating certain mindsets in people: either positive or negative.

How often are we hearing or reading such language around “Alzheimer’s:” in the news, from our neighbors and co-workers, and so on? As well as being clinically inaccurate, it sets up vulnerable elders as well as people with Down’s syndrome to be more likely to be negatively perceived and thus negatively treated by others. Such negative treatment can include mind drugging, low expectations, institutionalization into nursing homes and/or placement into so-called adult day health programs, and so on. What are elders being taught about themselves? What are young people learning about aging and elders? It’s certainly not good for them or for our society.

What examples of such language have you heard recently?

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