Does language matter? When I heard an RTÉ journalist referring recently to older people ‘dropping like flies’ because of Covid-19, it made me wince. I did not conclude, however, that he or RTÉ cared less about older people than they do about younger and healthier people. It was just a slip of the tongue of a kind that most ordinary people make every day.
But Dr Éidín Ní Shé, in her letter on behalf of ‘specialists’ — ‘Inappropriate language diminishes older people’ (Irish Examiner, April 24), thinks such language is ‘unacceptable’ and ‘upsetting’. She also tells us that terms like ‘elderly’ and ‘OAP’ are considered stereotypical, ageist, and disrespectful. She does not say by whom they are so considered but I guess she means the ‘specialists’.
This ruling would put a lot of people in the dock — myself included because last week I asked publicly “whether the elderly got overlooked” when the health authorities failed to ensure that there was an adequate supply of oxygen and said that PPE was not necessary in nursing homes. Needless to say, I didn’t think I was disrespecting older people by asking that question.
As I help care for a loved one during this period of confinement, I often ask my family members to pass me a ‘nappy’, which Éidín Ní Shé says is another forbidden word. Doing my best was, here again, not good enough because I should have asked for an ‘incontinence pad’.
Language does, of course, matter. But only if it truly reveals a bad underlying attitude that needs to be corrected. Dr Ní Shé objects to overuse of the phrase ‘underlying condition’ because she thinks it may suggest that some lives are expendable. But the real problem is its use to spin the idea that the Government couldn’t have done anything to save the lives of people with underlying conditions who fell victim to Covid-19. A future inquiry may show that faster action and different decisions might have reduced the suffering and loss of life among residents in care homes.
It may not always be fun, but the elderly, those who have an ‘underlying condition’, those who need a nappy, those who are dependent, have all arrived at a stage of life that is normal for human beings. We need not be ashamed to name it.
It’s whether and how we respect the dignity of people at the fragile end of life that really matters. We have seen how we must keep the pressure on government and health authorities to ensure they are properly treated during this crisis. That — rather than attempts to colonise the language of care and concern — is what should occupy public health professionals in academia or elsewhere in these critical days.