When I first encountered health literacy, I didn’t know that’s what it was.

During college, I brought a friend to the emergency room for an injured knee. As we waited, we saw a woman rushed in. Her companions were panicked, and in halting English, they explained that she had mistaken rubbing alcohol for a beverage. She apparently hadn’t been able to read the precautions on the bottle label or understand the skull-and-crossbones icon.

The experience stayed with me and I became a volunteer literacy tutor in 1991, working with students learning English as an additional language.

Over the last twenty years, I’ve volunteered with several different community-based adult education programs and have been fortunate to learn more about adult learning, the immigrant experience, and cross-cultural perspectives. I earned a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics with a focus on teaching ESL to adults.

However, my plans shifted a bit in 2005, when my brother and I noticed some changes in our Mom. She wasn’t as sharp as she once was and it wasn’t long before doctors confirmed what we already suspected: Mom had dementia and had started on the long, difficult road of decline.

I spent two years as the primary caregiver for my mother, helping her with all aspects of daily living – from coordinating her doctor’s visits and eventual long term care to keeping her safe, cooking nutritious meals, and watching Jeopardy! with her in the evenings.

Being a dementia caregiver taught me a lot about health communication. So many aspects of our lives, from getting ready in the morning to making dinner at night, take more steps than we realize. As a caregiver, I learned how to break steps down and explain them with compassion and patience.

The experience also taught me a lot about the American healthcare system, eldercare, rehabilitation and nursing home placements, and the legal and financial issues that dementia patients and their families face.

Even though I’m primarily a health writer now, I still love languages and linguistics. I write a blog called About English Idioms and am the “go to” person for grammar and etymology questions from my family and friends. I can play a mean game of Words with Friends. I also enjoy reading, traveling, and dabbling in foreign languages and dialects.