A feral attitude towards people with dementia?

Professor Wendy Moyle

By Professor Wendy Moyle, Menzies Health Institute Queensland.

The political, economic, medical and societal implications of Australia’s ageing population have received plenty of media coverage. With ageing being one of the biggest issues facing Australia’s future, no doubt it will continue to do so.

However, in some areas the nature of that coverage is becoming of concern, particularly regarding the attitudes towards dementia.

Dementia is a condition that carries a heavy burden of stigma for the person living with the condition and also their family members. Negative attitudes and poor media representations of dementia can influence the way that society perceives people with dementia and also the way people with dementia and their families learn to accept and live with dementia.

This is why I was quite concerned to read the article written by Christopher Jay and published in the Australian Financial Review, June 10 2015, titled ‘Dementia troublemakers problem in retirement homes’ http://www.afr.com/news/politics/national/dementia-troublemakers-problem-in-retirement-homes-20150610-ghknnu.

To refer to some people with dementia as ‘feral geriatrics’ is quite simply, disgusting and irresponsible and only contributes further to the burden of stigma that this proportion of society currently experiences.

Unfortunately stigmatisation can result in people with dementia becoming isolated. It can also prevent people from acknowledging memory loss and seeking the possibility of a diagnosis of dementia.

Furthermore, this may mean that such people will not seek treatment or referral to a dementia service. The language used to report on people with dementia in the media can influence the way they are viewed by society, how they are treated, and how they feel about themselves.

There are a number of excellent guides for journalists to use when reporting about people with dementia. I strongly suggest that media outlets improve the way that journalists report on dementia by encouraging them to adhere to the guidelines for journalists.

Dementia Alliance International, an advocacy support group by and for people with dementia, Alzheimer’s Australia and Alzheimer’s International are organisations that can assist media to use politically appropriate language when talking about people with dementia.

Kate Swaffer writes regular blogs about language use and dementia. An example can be found at: http://kateswaffer.com/2014/05/26/diagnosed-with-vs-suffering-fromdementia/

In this blog Kate states that “Indigenous Australians do not accept being called ‘Abbos’ or other offensive and racist terms, and people with dementia have the same right to stand up and say we don’t like certain words or terms”.

According to Alzheimer’s Australia there are more than 342,800 Australians living with dementia. With the country’s ageing population, this number is predicted to be 900,000 by 2050.

Clearly, this problem is not going away in a hurry. However, it is possible that our attitudes can go some way to alleviating the issue.