The Reward of Rewording

As people age, they sometimes have challenges with language: forgotten words, grasping for the right terminology, or simply putting a name to a feeling or memory. However, for people living with dementia, linguistic difficulties can be much more progressive.

Inspired by those who have difficulty with words, Toronto writer and curator Sheryl Gordon has written a new book which explores an evolving relationship with language and learning. Half of the profits are being donated to help people living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

In “A Rewording Life,” Gordon asked Canadians who make her life more ‘rewarding’ to use an unusual word in a creative sentence or phrase, allowing the esoteric to become tangible through context. They range from the beautiful to the bawdy to the hilarious, but all of them spark with wit and imagination. Interspersed with this delightful dictionary are Gordon’s own reflections in the form of essays, each focusing on a word that begins with a letter which spells out d-e-m-e-n-t-i-a.

The idea originated with Gordon’s own familial experience with dementia. “In the final essay in the book, I explain the moment when I thought I could write a book to help with words that I tend to forget, and raise money for people who lose their words like my mom,” says Gordon.

Gordon says her mother’s memory issues began innocuously and eventually became more pronounced, prompting some tough conversations and eventual diagnosis. “We were driving and I told her to go right and she went left,” she says. “That was really hard, having the conversation where you have to tell your mother she can’t drive anymore.”

The diagnosis itself was confusing for her. “That was a really murky period of my life. I didn’t even understand what it meant when she was diagnosed,” says Gordon. “Some doctors said Alzheimer’s, some said dementia, and I didn’t know the difference. We were all really confused. Later on, they told us it may have been FTD, but we lived with the Alzheimer’s diagnosis for five years.”

“With every family, it’s an emotional rollercoaster,” she continues. “You see your mom starting to forget things. And everything became ‘the thing’ for her—she would say ‘have you seen the thing’ or ‘where’s that thing’.  She just lost her words.”

With this inspiration, Gordon assembled examples of obscure or difficult words from over 1000 worthy Canadians, including writers, musicians, comedians, actors, etc. With this amazing creative brain trust, Gordon hopes to draw more attention to how dementia affects communication and how vital language is to the human experience.

“I really want people to understand the nuance between Alzheimer’s and dementia, because that was really hard for me to grasp,” explains Gordon. “It took years for me to understand that dementia is the umbrella term, and then all these ailments which fall under that. That’s explained in the intro to the book and I hope that it’s clear to the reader.  And if I can raise awareness about dementia and how it affects language, like it affected my mom, then hopefully people will learn more about it.”

“A Rewording Life” is available now here:

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