So Why Not Say Something Different?
by Stephanie Erickson

I have spent most of my life telling myself—and others—that I suffer from anxiety. After a personal tragedy, my anxiety dove so deep I could barely function. I was afraid to leave my home to go to work; I was afraid to lose my children—I was overwhelmed and lost. When the pain became so much that I became fearful for my future, I decided to make a change.

Ironically, I used the most anxiety-provoking activity I could think of to push me from a place of suffering to a place of living. Through this experience, I learned about the power of language and how words matter. A change in language can shift your mindset and lead you out of the dark into a place of living.

In this TEDx talk, I describe my personal experience and how it was the catalyst to send me to the depths of despair, and how I learned to “fly free.” This understanding has not only changed me personally, but also offered me a new lens through which to see the systems in which I work as a social worker.

Aging is scary for most people. We are afraid of cognitive losses, wrinkled skin, mobility challenges, isolation, pain, death—the list goes on. So we avoid, pretend and run away, trying to convince ourselves that if we don’t think about getting older, it won’t happen. What is sad about this mindset is that aging holds so many treasures. As we age, we come to know the world and ourselves so much more than in our youth, and we have much to offer the younger generations and society. If we can learn to embrace what is natural and see the joy rooted in our aging, I believe our support and care systems will follow. A shift in our language is one place to start.

When health care professionals use negatively biased language to speak to a person or to his family, the message is received in this same way. If health care professionals focus on capacities and abilities instead, families begin to see their loved ones positively and seniors feel valuable and engaged. I believe that those who are in the helping professions are good, honest, loving and hardworking individuals caught in overworked and overburdened systems. This creates distance between the care worker and the care receiver instead of a care partnership; we lose the human element and connection. Language is a part of this, just as I chose the term, “care partnership” instead of “caregiver-client relationship.”

It is so painful for families to watch someone change physically, psychologically and spiritually. Even as I write that sentence, I purposefully chose, “change” instead of “deteriorate.” Doesn’t that say something different? Our words will directly impact the way in which we perceive, evaluate and respond to a situation. If I say my mom suffers from dementia, I immediately lock her into all the negativity that word triggers and imagine her sitting in the corner unresponsive. If I say she has a diagnosis of dementia, I am immediately letting everyone know that her diagnosis is just one part of her, and you begin to imagine some of the symptoms, but your mind does not immediately picture high states of confusion and isolation. If I say my dad is physically disabled what comes to mind? A wheelchair? Someone who is bedridden? If I say my dad has mobility challenges, you immediately imagine someone moving, walking, sitting up and perhaps using a bit more effort, or a mobility device such as a cane. The image is not nearly as negative and scary.

When we use words that are positively biased, we can see people for who they are, and not for who they are not; this will allow us to find creative ways to connect, improve, foster, create and support abilities. This support makes the family feel less afraid and more hopeful, which will help them continue to advocate for the best services for their loved ones, and to allow them to stay connected to their loved ones as living human beings and not objects we place in a nursing home. When our words change, our mindset follows—and so will our health care system.