Stigma is principally about the perceived ‘otherness’ of a particular group of people, and is fuelled by stereotypes, negative language, fear, and misinformation. When it comes to dementia, stigma is often so widespread and so entrenched in everyday conversations that it slips by unnoticed and unchallenged.
We encounter this reality each time we overhear someone express that there is nothing that can be done for those with dementia, or that it’s ‘just a normal part of old age’. Similarly, we stumble upon stigma each time language is used that fails to recognise the individual behind the diagnosis, and that reduces those living with the disease to a series of labels, symptoms, and medical terms. This is deeply problematic at a number of levels.
Firstly, it causes great distress and acutely affects self-esteem, leading to ambiguity about seeking help and, ultimately, delaying diagnosis. This pattern not only heightens stress to carers, it worsens health outcomes for those living with dementia. What’s more, stigma can create a sense of anticipation that those with dementia will not be able to carry out normal social roles, or will behave in an embarrassing or socially unacceptable way. This unfortunate view can lead to those with dementia being kept away from mainstream society, thus reinforcing the perception of separateness. Lastly, the stained perception that people with dementia are somehow ‘incomplete’, owing to their memories not being intact, could mean that their personal preferences, values, or identity could be ignored.
Recognising these problems is not to scorn those who speak in such ways or who represent dementia negatively. Rather, by recognising that such stigma comes from an understandable place that blends compassion, concern and anxiety, we can use it as a foundation on which to build strategies that overcome and change perceptions.
Research shows that the best thing we can do to overcome stigma is to increase the range of dementia services on offer. With greater choice comes greater visibility, making the public more aware of dementia, giving clinicians wider options, and showing those with dementia that they can obtain help and that there is a life after diagnosis. What’s more, broadening the spectrum of services is a virtuous circle; more services equalling less stigma, and less stigma leading to creation of more services.
At Lingo Flamingo we see ourselves as part of this strategy to reduce stigma and challenge perceptions of dementia . We principally do this by providing language classes older adults living with dementia and other cognitive conditions. Our work is powered by research showing that learning a language is incredibly good for the brain, delaying dementia and helping aid stroke recovery.
Our slow-paced, sensory classes serve two central purposes. Firstly, they stimulate the mind, build confidence, and create connections between learners. In doing this, our language experience improves learner’s decision making and multi-tasking skills, and heightens their ability to concentrate and communicate. Secondly, our fun classes show to the public, and to those with dementia, that it’s never too late to learn, that there are opportunities to do something new, and that there is a life after diagnosis. As such, our classes our part of the movement changing perceptions and challenging dementia stigma.