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Commentary: As dementia develops, some seniors retreat to their first language

First-generation migrants who develop dementia may find themselves unable to communicate with their own children, should they revert to the language they used in their youth, says four experts.

Commentary: As dementia develops, some seniors retreat to their first language

An elderly woman in a wheelchair, pushed by her caregiver. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

GLASGOW: For many people with dementia, memories of early childhood appear more vivid than their fragile sense of the present.

But what happens when the present is experienced through a different language than the one spoken in childhood? 

And how might carers and care homes cope with the additional level of complexity in looking after bilingual people living with dementia?

These questions are not just relevant for people living with dementia and those who care for them. They can provide insights into the human mind equally important to neuroscientists, social scientists and even artists.

READ: Commentary: When memory fails in old age - the fight for independence, well-being shouldn’t be a lonely one

This relationship between dementia and bilingualism was the focus of a workshop we held recently in Glasgow. Bringing together healthcare professionals, volunteers, community activists, dementia researchers, translation experts, writers and actors, the workshop was organised around a reading of a new play performed by the Gaelic language group, Theatre Tog-ì.

The play, Five to Midnight, centres on a native Gaelic speaker from the Outer Hebrides whose English begins to fade as her dementia develops. 

Her English-speaking husband increasingly finds himself cut off from his wife as she retreats into the past and to a language he does not understand.

The couple’s pain and frustration at their inability to communicate is harrowing.


It soon became clear in the workshop that the minority-language subject matter of the play was not a rare, isolated case but one that connects to a broader range of important issues such as health, well-being and preserving cultural heritage for future generations.

We heard stories from people working in care homes in Ireland, Scotland and Wales that told how bilingual people with advanced forms of dementia and almost no linguistic skills, were transformed by care workers who could speak the patient’s mother tongue.

File photo of a woman sitting at a table in a nursing home. (Photo: AFP/Tobias Schwarz)

As with many people living with dementia, music and song were often the keys that unlocked the flow of words and memories.

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Bilingualism in the context of dementia affects millions of migrants all over the world. 

If parents have abandoned their original language to speak only English (or the dominant language of their adopted country) with their children, whole generations grow up cut off from their cultural heritage, unable to speak their parents’ language.

Which means first-generation migrants who develop dementia may find themselves unable to communicate with their own children as they revert to the language they used in their youth.

READ: Commentary: In English-speaking Singapore, children face huge challenges in mastering mother tongue

At the workshop, a member of a local language-learning enterprise called Lingo Flamingo explained this is why it organises befriending programmes for older people and patients with dementia, using languages such as Punjabi, spoken by people of Indian and Pakistani origin.

File photo of two women in a retirement home. (Photo: Unsplash/eberhard grossgasteiger)

The workshop also explored the role of the arts in raising public awareness of the reality of dementia in relation to language, as well as providing creative outlets for bilingual patients and their carers. 

As Five to Midnight demonstrated, using the arts to tell stories is an engaging and moving way to educate the public about dementia.


Loss of language skills is a common effect of dementia, and research suggests that the resulting challenges may be more complex for bilingual dementia patients and their carers. 

Identifying this complexity is a first step in addressing the issue at a practical and a policy level.

READ: Commentary: The hidden strength of those caring for loved ones with dementia

However, the workshop also explored the positive effects of bilingualism in the context of dementia. Research from countries such as India has shown that people who speak more than one language tend to develop dementia four to five years later.

These findings are in line with many other studies, suggesting a milder age-related decline in cognitive ability and a better recovery of brain function after stroke in those who are bilingual. So it is important that we do not see bilingualism as part of the problem but as a potential part of the solution.

READ: Commentary: The benefits of bilingualism go beyond knowing two languages

Whether we approach the issue from the point of view of health and care provision, brain science or art and literature, our workshop showed the need to appreciate all the languages spoken by one person as an integral part of who they are – in sickness and in health.

David Murphy is a professor of French and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Strathclyde. Aedin Ni Loingsigh is a lecturer in French and Translation Studies at the University of Stirling. Ingeborg Birnie is a lecturer in Gaelic and Education at the University of Strathclyde. Thomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/el(sl)


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