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The Power of Language to Create Culture

Language plays a crucial role in shaping the culture of aging and aging services in our society. The words we use when talking to and about older persons denote how they are valued, what is expected of them, and where they stand with respect to the speaker. Any serious and lasting attempt to change the culture of aging services organizations must include an analysis of what is said, to whom and what that communication both denotes (says) and connotes (means at multiple levels).

Learning from other fields, we have seen how words matter and can be sources of both good and harm. What a person is called creates expectations about their behavior and sets the limits on how much growth and individual identity is deemed possible by those who serve them. Our analysis of the traditional terms that have characterized speech in the aging services work place reveals culturally embedded ways of talking that infantilize, subordinate, marginalize and otherwise dishonor elders. We present many examples of changed vocabularies that reflect the values of some of the new cultures developed to combat these tendencies. These cultures reflect new assumptions about elders and their roles in society, and as such replace dehumanizing language with language that communicates honor, inclusion, partnership and equality of elders and those who serve them.

The impact of new language is seen as a way of interacting that goes deeper into the core of peoples' lived experience than mere changes in the words people speak. We argue that the new language will have a positive effect on how elders feel about themselves, how they think, and how functionally able they can be in daily life.

Words do indeed make worlds. In this ground-breaking new paper, authors Carmen Bowman, Galina Madjaroff and Judah Ronch conclude that cultures of care that honor those who live and work in them will find that changing culture and changing language are complementary processes.

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Thank you to The Hulda B. and Maurice L. Rothschild Foundation for the generous funding that made this paper possible.