When you lose your English in long-term care

Last weekend, while I was at my mom’s long term care home, I witnessed first hand the challenge (from both sides) of speaking a non-English language in that environment. 

In this scenario, the resident was in his wheelchair in the middle of a hallway. A Personal Support Worker (PSW) walked towards him and he attempted to stop her by saying something. The words were confident and firm but not in English. She reminded him that she didn’t speak “his language”. He continued to speak, getting more agitated.

When she told him that she didn’t know what he was saying, he shouted at her in accented but perfectly executed English, telling her that he did not speak English and she needed to understand what he was saying. Then he immediately switched back to his native language. 

The PSW, seemingly frustrated at this point, ended up walking away. The resident did not appear to get the assistance he needed. 

Regardless of where you are, having a common language is one of the easiest tools for being understood and getting the assistance you need. Unfortunately, with the typical cognitive decline that comes with age related illnesses such as dementia, individuals who have a mother tongue other than English, tend to revert to that language. 

In a perfect world, PSWs would all be multilingual or there would be more culturally specific long term care homes like Mon Sheong Home for the Aged in Toronto which provides services for Chinese residents or Heidehof in St. Catharines for Dutch seniors. Given the already long wait times for these types of homes, and long term care homes in general, paired with the ongoing challenges with regular staffing at LTC homes today, we are far from that utopia.

A lack of patience, resources and time to figure out what the resident is saying is more likely our current reality. 

According to Statistics Canada (2021), one in four Canadians speak English as a second language. We can therefore expect that our long term care homes will be more language diverse as time goes by, with both staff and residents. Language barriers experienced by non-English speaking residents will be more prevalent, unless there is a willingness within the long term care system to evolve to meet this need:

  • Translation apps on mobile devices could be implemented as a standard for communicating with non-English speaking residents.
  • Using picture boards or other visual devices in certain scenarios (e.g. meal or activity choices) could help. 
  • Also, staff need better and ongoing training around cultural competence, language regression in seniors and tactics to better provide support as English or language itself disappears.

To ensure continued autonomy and independence, residents have to be allowed to get their words out, in whatever language they may use. Staff need to be equipped with better ways to “hear” what is being said. 

And that gentleman in the wheelchair? Luckily for him, shortly after his encounter with the PSW, a family member arrived who did speak his language and knew exactly how to help.

Tymbi Gonsalves, Concerned Friends Volunteer

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