Danish-English differences in describing dementia

One of the interesting things about speaking two languages and having lived in two different cultures, is discovering differences in the cultural meanings of words. I have lived in Denmark since 2004, and I came in knowing the US jargon used in Gerontology and in dementia care, but had to learn how the Danish language describes the terms. (Jargon is the vocabulary used by a particular trade, profession, or group – like how medical terminology is medical jargon).

Sometimes, I get frustrated at the Danish language. But, usually, I take a step back and realize that the Danish language has far fewer words than the English language (Danish has between 40,000 and 130,000 words while English has over 1.5 million words). Sometimes, I appreciate the Danish language more than the English language, like how they call airplanes flyvemaskiner (flying machines), the gender-neutral term for boyfriend or girlfriend is just sweetheart/lover (kæreste), and how leder (leader) is the word used for managers. There are also two commonly used words for care:  pleje refers to more physical aspects of care (bathing, dressing, medications, etc.) and omsorg refers to the more psychosocial aspects of care (gentle, social aspects, emotionally caring for a person, etc.). This helps when you are talking with those who work in the field, to have a better idea of which type of care they work in.

Other times, I do not appreciate the Danish language. Like how the word dement is used to describe someone with dementia (demens or demenssygdom), but also means – and translates to – demented (the ethically incorrect way to describe someone as mad or crazy, in the English language). So, in English, I would say “I work with people who have dementia,” and in Danish, I would say “Jeg arbejde med demente” (I work with demented people). And I kind a cringe when Danish people (or anyone, for that matter) incorrectly refers to people with dementia as demented. It literally is hard for me to get it out of my throat. I have started saying in Danish “jeg arbejde med mennesker/borgere med demens,” which translates to “I work with people/citizens with dementia,” which I feel more comfortable saying. It is a bit more of a mouthful and isn’t as easily understood as if I say the standard demente, but I guess I feel I am making a larger statement by choosing my words carefully.

I don’t know if I will have an impact on the way that dementia is described and talked about in Denmark. I would like to think so, hope so, but I really don’t know. As professionals, if we are describing a person with dementia, from my experience, I hear just as often that han er dement (he is demented) as I hear han har demens (he has dementia). It seems they are not as sensitive to the words as I am. And, surprisingly, I have even heard a neurologist refer to dementia symptoms as being en gammel idiot (an old idiot)! I find that completely unacceptable. However, in his slight defense, this young doctor didn’t know that I work in dementia and gerontology and was probably trying to sound a little cool speaking in English to me.

The point of this post is to make you, dear reader, a bit more aware of the language used to describe dementia and people who are living with dementia. We can start to break the cycle of negative words used to describe our wonderful fellow humans, and we can talk to our friends, families, and colleagues about the words they use.

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4 thoughts on “Danish-English differences in describing dementia

  1. if I were in Denmark I would say I work with people who suffer from chronic amnesia or with brain recollective deterioration, or chronic memory loss. If they would ask what it is I would clarify it to them. With words there is always a way around it. It’s s part of a writer’s skill.

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    • True, you can use words to clarify. I was talking more about the set words that are used in the culture. For example, when I first moved here, I worked with a woman who had Cerebral Palsy. As it is called in English. In Danish, it was called brain sickness (hjernesygdom) because cerebral palsy (cerebral parese) wasn’t really used or understood back then. Amnesia, here in DK, is called hukommelsestab (memory loss).

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