Two sides of the elderspeak fence

Recently syndicated columnist “Dear Abby” printed a letter decrying the inappropriateness of addressing residents as “Granny,” “Dear” or “Sweetie.” Of course, respect for residents is first and foremost. It’s courteous and relationship building.  Respect for the elderly is (or should) begin as children and follow us through life. Federal and state statutes recognize this and long-term care facilities generally advise residents of these rights when they enter the facility. They hold in-services or staff training on the subject as they should.

Naturally, the form of address should be the resident’s choice or, if the person is cognitively challenged, the family should voice their preference at admission or the initial care plan meeting. That information must be passed along to staff who associate with the resident—not just nurses, therapists and CNAs, but housekeepers, wait staff and others who regularly interact with the resident. In basic principle, I am in full agreement.

What, however, do you do with someone who requests to be called by a nickname like “Chubby,“ “Peanuts” or “Dimples”? Do those sobriquets pass the respect test? Is that culture change or is it infantilizing? Where is the line in the sand? Are these complaints rare instances? The “Dear Abby” column made it sound like this is widespread, which I’m sure it’s not.

My mother was an assisted living resident for more than 10 years. She was addressed as “Mrs. O,” “Jane” with an occasional “Hon”  or “Janie” thrown in for good measure. She really just appreciated the dialog and care she received.   A lack of respect  or childish treatment was never an issue.  Over time, she became quite close with some aides, enjoyed their company and always felt respected and gave them a couple “sweetie” calls right back. To her family, we were happy that she felt a bond with her caregivers—they were her on-site “family.”

I think sometimes people are too touchy on words and less on actions. Of course, resident choice comes first but people have slips of the tongue, too. If someone is belligerent or sarcastic that is an inexcusable violation of resident respect.  But if an aide, for example, is distracted or in a hurry, I don’t think an offhand “hon” is worthy of dismissal or incident report. Maybe just a gentle reminder and review of protocol is all that’s necessary.

Topics: Advocacy