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Addressing elders in respectful terms

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

People entering nursing homes are generally from a more formal generation than their caregivers. The staff in centers should ask the person what they'd like to be called and get to know the person well before using "endearing" terms, as the elder may find the terms demeaning.

As my aunt and uncle (who had no children) aged, they found it appealing to move from their longtime home in Arlington, Virginia to be near us in Fargo, North Dakota. They'd been used to a military lifestyle and much more formality than they found here on the high plains, and for the most part were fine with the differences. There were some issues however, and one of the biggest irritations for my aunt was being addressed by her first name when she went through the bank drive-through.

This is a common approach now used by many, if not most, banks and other businesses. They are attempting to be friendly. However, to my 75-year-old aunt, having a 23-year old call her "Marion" rather than Mrs. Kelly was not friendly--it was disrespectful. She wasn't a snob or even old fashioned in most ways, but this informality grated on her.

When her husband, my uncle who retired as a full colonel, moved to a local nursing home, he liked the aides to call him "Colonel." They complied and he was happy. He could be rather pompous at times, and he obviously irritated a resident who delighted in calling him "Corporal," but that was a resident to resident squabble, and not something we could control. The personnel called him what he wanted to be called. They called him "Colonel."

Elder Care: Names Do Matter

Often, in a nursing home or assisted living center, the staff, trying to make the resident feel loved, valued and at home, may refer to the elder as "Hon" or "Dear." These people mean well, but they often don't realize that this familiarity may be offensive to some elders.

Residents deserve respect for who they are. Most of them are of a different generation than their caregivers. They may have a different idea about what they'd like to be called. My mother-in-law enjoyed being called by here first name, once she moved to Rosewood. That was generally the approach used at Rosewood, though if a resident preferred something else, such as my formal uncle did, then they would spread the word among the staff so everyone could comply. However, Rosewood was ahead of the curve on a lot of things.

Take Time to Find Out Which Name is Preferred

Some people like to be called "Hon," and if that works for the person that's fine. After the staff gets to know the resident, things can change. My mother's name was Ruth. Most people called her Ruth. However, after many years of visiting my uncle and eventually my dad at Rosewood, and then becoming a resident herself, she was intimately known by the staff.

As she grew frail and near death, many staff members called her "Ruthie." It was done in a loving way and as the intimacy had grown over the years, it was fitting. I believe my mother was comforted by this closeness. However, she wouldn't have liked that if she'd been greeted as "Ruthie" when she walked through the door the first day.

I am a small woman with a number of years under my belt and I've noticed in restaurants that I'm occasionally referred to as "Hon." I don't get huffy, as I know these people--usually women--are just being friendly. But it does set me back a bit. I'm not sure, if I were in a vulnerable situation with a strange person giving me a bath, that I'd like to be called "Hon."

Words matter. The way we address people matters. Elders deserve to be addressed by respectful, even formal, names until they feel at home. Then, gradually, the staff can figure out from the person, and even from family, if the elder would like to be called something different.

It's all about respect.

Elders constantly suffer losses to the aging process. Let's not take away their dignity by calling them names we may give to a five-year-old. We need to get to know the person before we become intimate with names.