Speaking the right language when taking care of old people (oops!)

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

As someone who considers words so central to his existence, both personally and professionally, I suppose it's only natural I was sucked into this. Call me a willing victim.

Research “word up” in an urban dictionary and it gives it to you straight up. The phrase means, “I comprehend what you are saying and verify that your statement is true, my good brother.”

Drop it to just “word” and it means “well done,” or it can simply signify agreement or be used as a greeting.

Word and word up, indeed, clever people at LeadingAge.

Ever since I caught wind of the Word Up initiative at LeadingAge's 2013 annual convention last October, I've believed it's an idea with great legs. Word Up is a game designed to change people's language habits when referring to care of people who are not, shall we say, incredibly young. (At this point, I'm a bit paranoid about accidentally writing one of the taboo words … read on for an explanation.)

Contestants in Word Up are challenged to give alternatives to words out of favor such as "facility," "industry" and "old." Modeled after the “Family Feud” television game show, players are to guess what acceptable words are hidden behind panels on a big scoreboard. Three strikes and you're out.

Instead of the word “facility,” for example, one might want to try “community,” “home” or “organization.” An alternative for “industry”? How about "profession."

I won't give more answers because that would spoil it for you. Just click here and follow the directions to play the game yourself.

This isn't the first attempt to soften the language and perceptions of long-term care. After all, the phrase “nursing home” has steadily vanished from the signs and brochures of eldercare communities for many years.

The topic brings to mind a battle waged about 10 years ago by the venerable Carl Young, the former top exec at LeadingAge New York. The exact year is cloudy but it was at LeadingAge's national convention in San Diego where I kept seeing session chairs with campaign-style pins left on them. The pins had the word “industry” crossed out by a red circle and diagonal line.

The curious reporter in me set out to learn their story. It didn't take long for someone to tell me I had to speak with Carl, which I eventually did, kicking off a warm professional relationship interrupted only recently by his retirement. Carl's explanation was that this isn't a profession that creates widgets on assembly lines or features factories with belching smokestacks so it shouldn't be called an industry. I have no doubt he would be a proud proponent of Word Up.

Any blog post or essay on words could go on and on, waxing eloquently or cracking wise about language in umpteen, multitudinous and limitless ways. Instead, I'll exit quickly and leave you to wonder how long you could go without uttering any of these during your work day: Beds, Discharge, Aged, Patient, Senior, Resident Room and Activities — among others.

It's a challenge they've put upon themselves at LeadingAge headquarters, and they'll be keeping track of slip-ups — from CEO Larry Minnix on down. I expect to make a full report on their successes or non-successes in due time.

Specifically, their starting mission is to eliminate the use of “facility,” “beds,” “industry” and “old people.” This is a mighty challenge. Old habits die hard (no pun intended, sadly). And no one can count on Uncle Sam or investor types to help with these. Government reports and analyses are replete with references to how many beds an average facility might have in this industry that serves old people.

Still, words often become labels, and labels can make a big difference. Words create impressions and impressions in turn create reality.

Do you want the reality that “nursing home,” “department head,” “demented person” and “diaper” create? If so, say “word” and carry on.

If you don't, “It's Word Up” for you. What do you say?

James M. Berklan is McKnight's Editor. Follow him @LTCEditorsDesk.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.