May 16th, 2011 at 8:49 am
Bookmark and Share

Cultural and linguistic hiccups in eldercare

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

There’s a hiccup taking place that I didn’t envision in my eldercare long-term journey. It is a linguistic and cultural barrier that I should have seen coming, yet I failed to envision its development.

I have become a cultural translator for those who interact with my mother at the nursing home.

Accents and thinking back to the Old World

Mom always hated being asked the origins of her accent. Her reply would be, “And, where’s your accent from? We all have accents, don’t we?” Can’t say that I blame her for taking offense to the question back in her heyday.

For some individuals, the searing inquiry into matters representing cultural distinctions is a big deal. My mother fits the Old World profile–meaning, we have to respect her personal space and cultural heritage. If you are not invited in to the Old World by the elder, proceed with caution.

Nursing home and health care diagnostic nuances

I can see where an elder’s accent may stand in the way of health care diagnoses. It is easy to slap the label of “dementia” on an elderly individual if:

  1. The listener doesn’t understand the elder’s regional accent
  2. The elder’s use of words varies, as in I say potato, you say poh-tah-to!

The last thing I would expect nursing home staff to do is to learn multiple languages, dialects and regionalisms from across the globe. As things stand, nursing home personnel are already overworked and underpaid without adding the study of linguistics to the lineup of daily operations and long-term care protocols.

The problem is that others don’t follow what Mom is saying without considerable effort and/or my Medical Power of Attorney self-imposed cultural and linguistic translator services. (I should get paid for this!)

Making sense of things: case-in point

When I recently visited my mother at the nursing home, she had just been rotated out of her wheelchair back into her bed to help relieve her body’s pressure points. She was quite alert, albeit soft-spoken as she is these days. As I often do while visiting Mom these days, I called my sibling to exchange family hellos and whatnot. Just as she was saying goodbye over the cell phone, Mom said in a faint voice, “I hope you will tell me what’s wrong.”

Translated: “I don’t know what physically ails me, but if there is anything seriously wrong with me, please let me know.” (Caregiver signal: I’m not stupid, and this is starting to be a real drag!)

It would be a reasonable question for anyone to ask me why the leap of logic in my family caregiver’s translation. Easy! The word pattern is consistent with shared meaning in language over the years. I don’t expect anyone else to understand Mom’s accent, let alone how she may string some words together.

Mom is serious. I wish it were within my power to advocate for all elders who could prematurely end up with a a dementia diagnosis. Not so fast, please, doctors and social workers. After the preliminary diagnosis, talk with a family member and the elderly patient for a good hour, or more–more than once, especially.

Posted in Caregiving, Support | No Comments »
Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply