There was a letter to the editor in the April 6th issue of the New York Times from a physician, a geriatrician. Dr. Barry Farkas’ letter refers to an earlier NYT feature article on adolescents facing death and having a say in how they want to live those last weeks and months. Dr. Farkas makes this point: “Language is so powerful that it not only reflects what and how we think of things, but it also directs what and how we think of things.”
I've written before in this blog about the power of language and the conviction that if we change our words we can change the culture. One obvious example of how the broader culture profoundly acknowledges the double function of words (to both reflect and to construct our concepts) is in the totally unacceptable use of the “n word” under any circumstances. Well and good.
In our society where ageism is so deeply embedded in the culture that we don’t recognize it, it behooves us to examine the words we use about aging, older adults, and aging services. Let’s look at a few terms that are still too prevalent in aging services communities:
If you need supportive services, do you want to move in to a community that provides those series, or do you want to be admitted? Clearly, one is admitted into an institution: a hospital, a university, the legal profession (‘admitted to the bar’). If we want our nursing home to be HOME, do we admit new residents or help them move in?
In many nursing homes, meals are prepared by the dietary department. What if we said food services instead? The food already tastes better, and the meal time seems more like the social act that dining really should be.
If a person in a nursing home needs assistance with meals, is that person’s dignity better recognized by describing her as a feeder or as Sharon, who needs assistance with her meals?
Nursing homes sprang up in our country from two pre-existing institutions: the county almshouses and hospitals. Gawande addresses this historical reality well in his book, BEING MORTAL. It’s time to move our thinking from nursing home as institution to nursing home as HOME. One way to initiate that move is to consciously choose our words because “Language is so powerful that it not only reflects what and how we think of things, but it also directs what and how we think of things.”