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My Demented Dad: why use a long word when a short one will do?

For as long as I can remember Dad has been a stickler for the proper use of language. He would routinely correct any sloppiness, and still does. 

I have to be careful not to use ‘disinterested’ to mean not interested, because I’ve had decades of being reminded that disinterested means impartial.  Uninterested means not interested. Better just to say not interested, rather than risk getting it wrong.

Dad’s vocabulary has diminished since his hospital stay – it may be a coincidence but I now see him in a BH (Before Hospital), and an AH (After Hospital) way. We still attempt a daily crossword but Dad’s chances of getting anything right are increasingly remote. He does sometimes surprise us - today one of the clues was ‘musical work’, 4 letters, and straightaway Dad said ‘opus’ - but it happens less often.

He knows very well what he wants to say but he can’t find the words he needs – typically nouns - so he’s developed his own particular shorthand.  It’s like a foreign language – a kind of Esperanto where the words seem familiar but are not quite right. It used to be that anything beginning with ‘t’ was a request for a tissue, but now it’s anything with a double ‘ss’ sound, which does make a kind of sense, but only if you know the code.

I’ve noticed two other changes. Dad can’t easily learn new words, and doesn’t always have the mental agility to respond to words which may have the same meaning but are not the words he traditionally uses.  Ask Dad if he’d like a sweet after lunch and he will expect some chocolate or a chunk of toffee. He’s just as delighted when a helping of trifle arrives, but confused.  We always said pudding rather than sweet or dessert. And supper for an evening meal rather than tea.  I long ago learned that inviting a Scot for tea and only offering a cup of Earl Grey and a slice of marble cake - however lovingly handmade - is not on.

Accents can be a source of befuddlement for Dad, and a combination of unfamiliar terms and a strong accent makes life very difficult. People who talk quickly are another frustration. And where once Dad delighted in the use of a range of words, he now prefers simple, unambiguous English, carrying one thought at a time.  “Do you want a drink? Tea, coffee, or juice and are you warm enough?” is too much data for Dad to process.

At a recent Alzheimer’s Scotland meeting I learned that for people with a cognitive impairment, which includes dementia, it can take up to five times as long to respond to a question. They need to first hear the question, assimilate and understand the information, formulate their answer and then reply.

Too many people talking at once becomes a kind of white noise and Dad tunes out, so large gatherings are no good, and instead we drip-fed Dad his birthday celebrations with one or two visitors at a time throughout the day.

The other thing I’ve noticed is how suggestible Dad has become. If someone says to him “you must be very uncomfortable” or “you must be very tired” he thinks he must be.  And so he is! But if we bound in, with a broad smile and say how well Dad looks and what a lovely day it is, he responds cheerfully.

Life has become altogether quieter and we go at a slower pace. I still have to mind my language, but in a different way. I think Dad is benefiting from the new, stripped down communication and I’m sure he approves of the precision and clarity - he always said never to use a long word when a short one would do. Although he would also be the first to admit that language is constantly evolving and we need to move with the times.

I once corrected Bob Geldof’s use of the word ‘enormity’ - as in ‘the enormity of the famine’.  A word increasingly used erroneously. I could hear Dad’s voice in my head and I couldn’t help myself.

“Bob, you know that ‘enormity’ means an act of extreme wickedness”, I told him.  “It doesn’t mean enormousness or immensity.”

He looked me in the eye, harrumphed, and said “Well it does now!”

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