Why we should ditch the word Senile


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All right, we’re going talk about a phrase, or a word rather, that I’ve heard a number of times recently. In fact, perhaps as many as three times in the last week. And that’s a lot of times! Can you guess what the word is? You probably can because that’s the name of this video. So I’ve heard people use the word Senile a few times recently and you know, I’ve heard it here and there, but this is something I really want to attack because I’m not too fond of this word. This is actually a bad word in gerontology and geriatrics. It’s a bad word in my field. And I totally understand that the people using it don’t realize it’s a bad word. I’ve even heard it on the improv stage. If you have been following my stuff, if you know anything about me, I’ve been doing improv comedy since about 2007.

Improv is not the same thing as stand up. It’s when you get on stage, usually with a group and you get a suggestion from the audience and essentially make up a play. That is essentially what improv is. And when I hear people use it in improv or just out in the world, I’m like one, they don’t realize that it’s offensive, but two it’s not good improv because you’re essentially calling your scene partner crazy. Or you’re saying, well, they can’t understand because they’re senile. Senile really means dementia. And so when I hear someone use the word senile, my question is actually, well wait, are we saying, this person actually has a cognitive impairment, a diagnosable cognitive impairment that we need to look at, that’s worth talking about. And sometimes, that’s the case when we’re referencing their grandmother, like grandma’s getting a little senile.

The problem with this word is it’s not really meant as a diagnosis. It’s kind of meant as like, oh, just don’t even worry about what they are doing. Like they’re just not all there. It’s fine. That’s not fine. You would never say that about somebody with a different type of disease. You would never be like, nah, they just have cancer. It’s whatever. Whoa, you’d be like, what? But senile is really kind of an aggressive word and it doesn’t really give us any information. So I want to get people away from using this word because it’s offensive. It’s aggressive and it doesn’t really give us any actual information. It kind of just throws somebody into a category that then suggests that they’re incapable of making decisions for themselves. So I want to suggest to you that if you’ve used this word, try to stop using this word, and then if you hear other people use this word, encourage them to choose a different phrase or when you do hear it to say, wait a minute, does the person you’re talking about, maybe have dementia? Thanks for tuning in and I hope you learned something today.

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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