Recently the New York Times ran an article about all the “sweeties,” “dears,” and “honeys” who occupy our long-term care facilities. And all of them clustered around the Big Rock Candy Mountain, don't you know. The article cited experts claiming that this was actually clinically harmful.
I wouldn't be surprised. I'm sure that all of us who've had loved ones residing in LTC facilities have gone through the cringing, teeth-grinding experience of hearing them addressed in this way. My dad—former factory worker, boxer, hardscrabble farm boy, now leveled by a stroke and unable to talk back—was often addressed childishly during a seven-year hospitalization. My mom—a 60-year stalwart of her church, teacher of generations of Sunday school kids, and fearless Girl Scout camper for decades—is often called “sweetie” and “honey” by her facility staff, although in this case they seem to be genuine terms of endearment.
I guess that's my point. As I've had reason to comment in the recent past in this column, we have to be especially careful in this field as to how we use language. It is so easy to be unwittingly misleading or hurtful. And we should really mean what we say.
It is very human to see a severely debilitated elderly person and want to extend every bit of kindness and support that we can. But it is important to take a moment and ask: Who is this person? Where does he or she come from? What are the lifetime achievement/high points that ought to be known? Perhaps some particularly empathetic individual on staff can be designated to find out more about each resident and to communicate that among staff.
Giving people their just due is important at any age and walk of life—not only is it just, it is fulfilling and lends dignity to a life that has plenty of challenges without our adding to them. It is likely that doing so in your facility will greatly enhance the resident's experience, your staff's satisfaction, and your facility's reputation.
And it doesn't take money—just a little time and interest.
Richard L. Peck, Editor-in-Chief
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Long-Term Living 2008 November;57(11):8