Senior Parents: What a Difference a Word Makes

Words matter, especially words that describe people who are aging. In every day conversation, disrespectful phrases such as “old people” or “old folks,” are commonly used. My parents and many of their friends detest these comments.

This week I listened to a podcast of a panel discussion, produced by a well-known media outlet, and buried in the interesting content were comments such as “too old” and “not all there.” So many of these words emphasize the gap between older and younger people. The problem is ageism, plain and simple.

Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community Supportive Language Card, Side 1

Growing old is a normal part of life, and while it can be hard work, most people manage it quite well with intellects intact.

Yet keeping a sense of self, not to mention pride, is a daily challenge — maybe this challenge should even be added to the activities of daily living (ADL). Older seniors navigate a minefield of unintentional (my dad calls them tacky) comments and references designed to trivialize, and it’s no small challenge. The International Longevity Center, founded by the late Dr. Robert N. Butler (NY times Obituary), posts this short article, Old Age has Value in Today’s Youth-Oriented Society by Ithaca College Gerontology Professor John A. Krout. Dr Krout also heads the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute.

Some communities are trying to solve the problem.

At Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community (VMRC ), where my parents live, I discovered that every staff member carries a green laminated card, covered on both sides with printed words. This wallet-size card, part of the community’s Supportive Living Language Campaign, is a mini-vocabulary review, reminding staff members that some words are more respectful than others. Inspired by the Eden Alternative organization (Read the 10 Principles that are a part of the Eden Alternative mission), the card is a VMRC campaign that aims to make a big impact by helping everyone view aging as a normal part of life. The goal is to de-emphasize words that relate to a medical mode, trivialize, or make people feel less vibrant and alive and competent.

VMRC Supportive Language Card, Side 2

Take a look at both sides of the card. Some words apply to all of the residents in the VMRC community, and others apply when a resident needs extra assistance or residents living in the skilled nursing neighborhood (notice that they do not say unit). At VMRC, no matter where a resident is living, even when that person needs continuous nursing care, he or she will always a referred to as a community resident and never as a patient.

Over a year ago, when my mother-in-law was still living, she began to have so much difficulty with eating that she needed to protect her clothes. The dining room of her assisted living community had just what she needed — a bib we called it — and either my husband or I would retrieve one on nights when we shared a meal with Mother. Each time we said the word bib, mother flinched, though we did not think much of it at the time.

Now, after thinking about the VMRC Supportive Language Campaign, I understand more about the power or words than I did a year ago. Though my husband’s mother was terribly sick at the time, she was not too sick to dislike the word bib — a word she associated with infancy. Mother would have felt a lot less dependent and enjoyed her dinners a lot more had we used the words “apron” or a “clothing protector.”

It’s too bad we had not yet seen the VMRC vocabulary cards. What a difference a word makes.

2 thoughts on “Senior Parents: What a Difference a Word Makes

  1. As a senior at VMRC I can confirm your perspective on language and what a difference it makes. We are discovering a whole new vocabulary, as it is used in reference to disabilities of all kinds. Children are learning more about this new reference frame in their schools in the early grades. So who knows, maybe we will educate ourselves out of these unfortunate stigmatic and linguistic references.


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