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Dementia Is An Ugly Word

Think like a wise man
but communicate in the language
of the people.
–William Butler Yeats

Words hold meaning. Words inform us. Words teach us many things. Language is relationships. Language can build them up or tear them down. Language is everything.

Dementia carries a stigma

Alzheimer’s is one part of an overarching category of illnesses called dementia. The word dementia…what an ugly word. It conjures up all kinds of feelings. It certainly did for me. I was…horrified…when my Dad was finally given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s with mixed vascular ‘dementia’.

What is the origin of the word ‘dementia’?

Dementia. Demented. If you’re demented, you’re crazy, right? The word carries an early definition of and images of schizophrenia, psychosis, and mentally ill people.1 Like most words in the medical field, the origin is in the forgotten language of Latin from the mid 16th century. If history is correct, the word was first spoken in the mid-1500s. It was first written about 100 years later in the mid-1600s.2 Another definition that is more palatable if we must use the word comes again from Latin; the word dementia is derived from ‘demens’, meaning ‘to deprive of mind’.3

Today it is used to categorize people with Alzheimer’s but it’s really labeling. I can’t put all of my feelings yet into words but I can say Dad was not schizophrenic or psychotic or mentally ill. He had a degenerative brain disease. The cause for Dad was multifactorial, none of which involved mental illness. To me, there is a big difference.

Separate the word from the stigma

Yes, we can hide behind the reasoning for the word: it is an overarching category that captures several different types of loss of brain function. Baloney! It is still an ugly word that we are told does not subscribe to the original meaning.

But how can you separate out the two? If the original definition was ‘insane’, ‘raving’, ‘foolish’, ‘wild’ or ‘reckless’ then why are we using that today?4 That in no way describes people who have Alzheimer’s or Louey Body or vascular brain disease. The modern definition is gentler but none the less offensive: ‘suffering from or exhibiting cognitive impairment’.

Don’t make Alzheimer’s worse with our language

I understand the new definition but it doesn’t change the stigma that goes along with it for both the person who has Alzheimer’s but also the family. Surely to goodness, the people who determine these titles could step out of their professional roles and into a more human, more sensitive role to see the impact on the individuals and their loved ones. It’s like being kicked when you’re down. It feels bad. Alzheimer’s comes with many unpleasant truths. Truths that we can barely cope with some days. Why make it worse by our words, our language?

Euphemisms are unpleasant truths
wearing diplomatic cologne.
–Quentin Crisp

Dementia is still an ugly word, title, category. Given an option, I’ll take a euphemism, a diplomatic cologne. Let’s find one.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The AlzheimersDisease.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Should the word ‘dementia’ be forgotten? 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3823159/ Accessed February 17, 2020.
  2. Dictionary.com. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/demented Accessed February 17, 2020.
  3. Dictionary.com. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/dement Accessed February 17, 2020.
  4. Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/dement Accessed February 17, 2020.

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