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What do we mean when we talk about dementia? Exploring cultural representations of “dementia”

Hannah Zeilig (London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London, UK)

Working with Older People

ISSN: 1366-3666

Article publication date: 9 March 2015




The purpose of this paper is to contribute to debates about the category “dementia”. Dementia is discussed, as it is a social, political and cultural issue, rather than a solely medical phenomenon.


The methodology synthesises perspectives from humanities with the social sciences. Thus a number of cultural texts are analysed critically and set alongside data from two original research projects exploring the use of the arts for people living with a dementia. Central to the research is a close and critical examination of news reports, films, plays and documentaries that represent “dementia”. The extent to which metaphorical language frames ways of talking about dementia formed a key part of this analysis.


Until recently, “dementia” has been primarily defined in biomedical terms. This paper demonstrates that understandings of dementia should be extended to encompass social and cultural contexts.

Research limitations/implications

The research concentrates on the UK context, but there are lessons that can be extrapolated from to other contexts.

Social implications

This paper explores why it is important to understand “dementia” in terms of cultural context, the reasons we should challenge the language often used to describe people living with a dementia, the ways in which prevailing representations of people living with a dementia can affect perceptions and contribute to stigma.


This paper presents an alternative perspective, that is not biomedical and draws on original research from both the humanities and social sciences investigating the stories that we tell about this complex condition.



Zeilig, H. (2015), "What do we mean when we talk about dementia? Exploring cultural representations of “dementia”", Working with Older People, Vol. 19 No. 1, pp. 12-20.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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