Culture Change Language: Thinking about Terminology in Elder Communities

In my Activity Coordinator course, taught by Betsy Best-Martini at College of Marin, I leaned that residents of assisted living communities are no longer called “Grandma,” “ Mommy,” “Honey,”  or “Girls.”  They are called what they prefer to be called, just like the rest of us.  What used to be called “patients” are now called “residents,” and “adult diapers” are now called “briefs.” They are residents of “elder communities,” not of “elder facilities.”

What irks me most is the term “bib” and even its new word “napkin,” or “clothing protector” to describe what adults in assisted living communities often wear during meals.  I mean, really, “clothing protector?”  When I saw these contraptions on residents who could not feed themselves independently, I thought to myself, “They are being treated like babies.” As a non-stop writer, who often eats on the run, in the car, or at my computer, I empathize with spilling, and food ending up in random places, instead of  in one’s mouth.  Having worked throughout my adulthood, I haven’t had much time to wear aprons, but remember fondly my grandmother in a flowered apron serving my mother and me tea and cookies when I was six.  With this vivid memory, and my mother’s success in bringing me up to be the perfect hostess, I believe that each resident of an assisted living community  should have his or her own personally designed apron. It’s possible, even if the individual has memory loss or just had a stroke, is all drugged up, and can’t move anything except her eyes.  An individual who just had a stroke did just that during an apron activity that I conducted at one of AgeSong’s six elder communities in the San Francisco Bay Area). She designed her own apron by choosing color from two magic markers and by nodding yes to her choice of a half apron, rather than a full apron.

AgeSong communities have their own language culture. They don’t believe in “caregiving.” Rather, they call it “care partnering,” with the understanding that we all have something to learn from each other, no matter what physical or mental state we are in. Nader Shabahangi, CEO of AgeSong, tells the story of when he sat down next to a resident, made some small talk, and then apologized to the person sitting next to him for having nothing much more to say.  His companion turned to him and asked, “Why do we need to talk?”  Nader uses the term “elder” out of respect for the maturity that deepens with time.  He notes that we frequently refer to humans who are elders as “wise” and defines wise as “unhurried, measured, restrained, patient, reasonable, kind, empathic, dignified, aware, careful, and considerate” (Elders Today:  Opportunities of a Lifetime, (Elders Academy Press, 2011, p.8).

Alan Klaum, president of the Pacific Institute Board, which oversees AgeSong Institute, says, “AgeSong terms are always evolving.”  For example, “adult day care centers” could be called “adult care learning and partnering centers.”  Since adult day care centers throughout the country are closing because of lack of funding, AgeSong is looking into setting up intergenerational care partnering and learning centers with additional support from private donors.

Opposed to the medical model of care, AgeSong prefers the term “forgetfulness,” rather than “dementia.”  According to Nader, forgetting is not all negative. He says, in Elders Today:  Opportunities of a Lifetime,  “Forgetting allows us to be present with what manifests itself to us at this moment” (Elders Academy Press, 2011, p. 24). It’s easy to be impatient with those who move or think slower than we do.  Nader points out that if we are impatient with others, we are impatient with ourselves. I wonder if those of us who have been driving in the fast lane for most of our adult lives will lose our memory sooner than those who have more patience with themselves. High anxiety people who start becoming forgetful certainly have a more difficult time dealing with memory loss than those who are less judgemental or self-critical.

Motivated by AgeSong’s anti-diagnostic view, I coined the phrase “foraging for memories,” rather than “compulsive hoarding,” which is a term often used for those growing up during the Depression and during the First and Second World Wars.  I created a “Foraging for Memories” apron, loaded with pockets in which to store foraged memories. When both staff and residents design (and wear) their own aprons, I shall say, “Mission accomplished; we are now truly “care partners.”

Culture change language is a good place to start thinking about others and ourselves differently.

Dr. Sally Gelardin, AgeSong Today Journalist

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