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The labels we use to describe a person can have a profound impact on our attitudes towards that individual, and resultantly how we might treat them.

My PhD research has recently been examining the most common labels used in the UK news media to describe people who have dementia. In a corpus of five years’ worth of news articles from national newspapers that featured ‘dementia’ in the headline or first paragraph, I have explored how the word ‘dementia’ is related to individuals, and the impact this has.

The most common way of describing people with dementia in my data was, somewhat unsurprisingly, ‘people with dementia’. This has been called ‘person-first language’, because the person comes before the illness or disability, and no opinions or stereotypes are encoded about the condition. It is fairly neutral terminology, but in my data I have found that it can still be used to impose judgement and incite fear. A fifth of all instances of ‘people with dementia’ in my corpus involved some sort of quantification. For example:

‘There are about 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, forecast to rise to one million by 2025’ (The Times)

‘Our population is ageing, and numbers of people with dementia are expected to soar to over a million in the next decade’ (Daily Mail).

I would argue that these attempts to quantify ‘people with dementia’ generate fear and anxiety; there is a sense of an immeasurable, imminent crisis with this language of ‘forecasting’ and ‘soaring’ in the near future.

This sense of fear around the condition is corroborated by the second most common label for people with dementia: ‘dementia patients’. This was normally in the context of hospital admissions or clinical trials, as in ‘Scientists hope to start trials in dementia patients after rat study suggests drug reduces brain inflammation and encourages neuron growth’ (The Guardian). The label ‘dementia patients’ constructs people with dementia as passive and voiceless, because they are acted upon by others (‘scientists’). Further, they are reduced to body parts and pathological processes (‘brain inflammation’, ‘neuron growth’), foregrounding the condition over all other aspects of the individual.

Similarly, there was a tendency to describe people with dementia as ‘dementia sufferer/s’. This label was used when discussing institutional and physical abuse of people with dementia, as in ‘Dementia sufferers have been left to starve or live on biscuits, with others left in soiled sheets and dirty clothes, according to a damning report warning of failures to care for the vulnerable’ (Daily Telegraph). Here, people with dementia are construed as inherently vulnerable and victims. The label ‘dementia sufferer/s’ is frequently surrounded by language that emphasises frailty, old age and an inability to speak for oneself.

Labels that promote a neutral or positive attitude (language such as ‘people living well with dementia’) are virtually absent in the data. Where they are used, they occur in the direct speech of charity representatives and advocates (as a side note, rarely are the voices of people with dementia heard representing themselves). Labels that challenge stereotypes could present a view of dementia that is more than one of passivity and victimhood, but evidence from this survey of the contemporary British press indicates that there is still a way to go before this type of language is adopted in the news media.

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