Twenty-five years ago, my aunt and uncle moved from the Washington, D.C. area to be with my family here on the Great Plains. One of the few complaints that I heard from my aunt about the move was that when she went to their new bank, the tellers called her by her first name. To someone of her generation, a younger person should have been calling her Mrs. Kelly. Yes, she understood their intent and she now lived in a more open, friendlier community than before, but she felt that first names lacked dignity. Additionally, while she was obviously aging, her mind was quick and her memory accurate. All she wanted was a little respect.
An article in the Daily Mail speaks to this issue in a delightful manner, stressing that people have differing views about addressing our elders at any time but particularly when they are in need of care. One view is that pet names such as Sweetie are demeaning. This attitude comes from a woman whose family wasn’t used to terms of endearment. The opposing view is from a woman completely comfortable with these terms and finds that they encourage bonding. My own view? It depends.
Ask people how they would like to be addressed
Preserving an elder’s dignity should be a top priority. Even though most people have gotten used to being addressed by their first names, it still doesn’t hurt to ask how each individual would like to be addressed, particularly in a caregiving situation such as assisted living or a nursing home.
When my uncle, after several massive strokes, entered a local nursing home, he was asked what he’d like to be called. His answer was Colonel. That may seem over-the-top these days, but he'd been a full colonel in the military before retirement. Like his wife, my aunt, he was used to a formal environment and it was a place where rank mattered. The nursing home employees had no problem with calling him Colonel and my uncle felt respected.
Contrast this with my dad who, after a disastrous brain surgery that was intended to correct the effects aging had on a World War II brain injury, woke up with instant dementia. Dad soon moved to the same nursing home where my uncle resided. Though the name on Dad's door said he was Clarence, and visiting doctors and newer employees usually called him Clarence, those who got to know him understood that he preferred to be called Brad.
Pet names should be used only by those given such privileges
My mother eventually joined Dad (my uncle had since died) in the same nursing home. Her name was Ruth and that’s what she was called. As years passed and Mom grew more and more frail, I know that some of the CNAs frequently called her Hon. She knew these people well and recognized the endearment. I think, because of the tone they used, she felt cared for. Yet from someone who didn't know her, this would have been demeaning.
One nurse, whom we as a family had known since my uncle first entered the home, would occasionally call Mom Ruthie. It warmed my heart to hear this and I know that this pet name made Mom feel loved. We all had a special bond with this wonderful nurse, which made all the difference. She had earned the right to call Mom by a pet name. Again, this situation was far different than a stranger striding in Mom's room and calling her Ruthie or even Hon.
It’s easy to look at these terms of endearment as small issues and to consider those who would complain about something meant as a kindness to be grouches. However, names matter on a very deep level since, among other things, what we are called represents our individuality.
What we call people should always embody respect. Respect means that as strangers we start off more formally and then, perhaps, ask what they prefer to be called. As closeness grows, names can change. Eventually, Hon – or in Mom’s case, Ruthie – may become not only appropriate but comforting. However, as I’ve said, the right to do this is a privilege earned after the underlying respect has been established and a kind of caring or even love is implied.