​Understanding Terms of Endearment: The ‘Do’s’ and ‘Don’ts’ of calling the Older Adults in our Care “Sweetie” or “Honey.​”

Some people have a strong affiliation either for or against the use of terms of endearment. They either love it or hate it, and the middle area of when their use is appropriate is grey. When about older adults, there is a multitude of reasons why you should not exchange an individual’s name with a term of endearment. And only one reason for why it is okay.

The only time calling an older adult “Sweetie,” “Honey,” or any other term of endearment is if you ask them directly and they say yes. Or at best in the cases, that a person is no longer able to communicate an answer close family members and friends can confirm that these names are appropriate.

So why draw such a sharp line?  It’s not like these nick-names are deliberately offensive. And on the surface, there are many reasons why people use them. Some of the most popular reasons I’ve heard over the years are:  “I call everyone, Sweetie.”, “They call me, Honey all the time.”, “I was raised to call people that,” or “I am horrible at remembering names.”

However, when used to an older adult, particularly older adults who are in the care of someone else the use of terms of endearment can raise a dignity issue.

What’s in a Name? 

Something strange happens when you receive a diagnosis. Suddenly your name becomes that diagnosis, or if you are living in a long-term care facility, your name become’s a room number and diagnosis.  Too often, I’ve been told “room 204 with dementia” can’t go to activities today because they have a doctor’s appointment.

Side note: a Resident has the Right to choose their schedule.  So if they want to go to the day’s activity instead of their doctor’s appointment, it is their right to do so.  Of course, under the advisement that a doctor’s appointment is important. 

To then replace their name with “Sweetie” or “Honey” only further distances themselves from who they are.  A diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s already ripped away pieces of their identity from them, as their caregiver we should try everything in our power to maintain their sense of self.  One of the best ways to do this is to call them by their preferred name.

Now, if they have spent their whole life being called “Baby” then yes, of course, that is what we should call them, but to know this requires us to ask for their preference and spend the time to learn more about them.

Right to Dignity

The Resident’s Rights don’t explicitly spell out that terms of endearment shouldn’t be used. However, a resident’s right to be treated with consideration, respect, and dignity does encompass a preference for their name.

As a society, we have learned the power of a name. Calling someone something other than their birth name or nick-name can have very serious connotations. There is no difference when discussing the dignity of an older adult. As harmless as it may seem, and no matter the reason for their use without knowing the older adults preference, calling them “sweetie” or “honey” can be offensive and even demeaning.

Have a Conversation

While this article has taken a bit of an earnest tone, there is an excellent opportunity to get to know the person in your care.  So often terms of endearment are used as a personal sign of respect. However, their use isn’t one size fits all and the quality of care really should be person-centered.

There is so much in a name and asking someone what they would prefer to be called can offer great insight into their personality and even a life story. Finding out how someone came about receiving a nick-name has brought on wild tales that I still think about today.  The older adults in our care deserve the respect of a name preference, and we should always offer that choice to them.

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