How Person-Centred Language Can Change Lives

Categories: Advocacy, Social Connection|By |Published On: |

Graphic courtesy Behavioural Supports Ontario.

Graphic courtesy Behavioural Supports Ontario.

A new report from Behavioural Supports Ontario (in collaboration with Alzheimer Society of Ontario and Ontario Centres for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care (CLRI) has made a compelling case for how person-centred language can improve the lives of people living with dementia, complex mental health issues, substance use and/or other neurological conditions, as well as their care partners. 

Published in 2018, the report, which is based on existing literature and was created with insight from an expert panel, including people living with dementia, shines a light on the idea that language and health are inextricably linked. 

What is Person-Centred Language? 

At its core, person-centred language is an appropriate, respectful, life-affirming and inclusive way to communicate (verbally and non-verbally) with people living with dementia and other neurological concerns. It is language that focuses on seeing the person first rather than their condition. 

“Rather than saying or regarding somebody in terms of being a dementia sufferer,” says Kate Ducak, project officer for the Ontario CLRI at the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging and one of the co-leads of the project, “you throw in those extra couple words to say ‘person living with dementia.’”

Why is it Important?

Not only does language contribute to building a culture of respect, it can also reveal unconscious assumptions and biases. By thinking critically about what words mean and how they are used, we shift from taking language’s impact for granted to recognizing — and altering — its effects. For example, Ducak says that when care providers for people living with dementia engage with the concept of person-centre language, even a little bit, it can help them see past those biases and begin to view the people they care for in a more human and whole way.

This can mean that instead of deciding someone is difficult because of their responsive behaviour/personal expression, care providers can start to recognize and then respond to the person’s unmet need behind the responsive behaviour/personal expression. Those results are wide reaching. 

“By making that little change within themselves, it starts a ripple of change, and that is what some people call culture change,” she says.

Benefits for People Living with Dementia

Person-centred language can reduce stigma and discrimination related to the disease, foster dignity and empathy, and ultimately result in more precise and effective care. A person exhibiting signs of dementia may be less reluctant to see a doctor when stigma is reduced; being seen as more than just your disease can build trust and self-esteem; and care workers who look at a wholistic picture of someone living with dementia are more likely to see and address the non-disease issues they face. 

How to Practice It

The easiest way to start implementing person-centred language is to visit, where you’ll find both big-picture methodology and step-by-step instructions. You’ll want to start with these four steps: See the Person First, Build Trusting Relationships, Consider All Forms of Communication and Advocate for Person-Centred Language (see graphic).

“It requires a lot of self-reflection,” says Tina Kalviainen, strategic communications specialist for Behavioural Supports Ontario and co-lead of the project. “Person-centred language does require some work, and we have to unlearn what we’ve been using to make sure we respect the person first.”  [ ]