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50 names not to call Alzheimer’s me

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red flag to a bull cropped

 

“Calling me ‘dear’ is like a red flag to a bull,” I once said to a friend. “It makes me want to charge. It’s patronizing, condescending, and rude.”

It also rankles me when I hear elderly people who live with dementia being called pet names by others who could be their children or grandchildren. Maybe these folks think it’s sweet to call old people dearie and the like, but it’s not. It’s disrespectful at best, and dangerous at worst. It diminishes and demeans; it’s one of the myriad ways we rob the elderly of their dignity.

Take a look at this revealing 2008 NYT article, which says:

“…a team of researchers videotaped interactions in a nursing home between 20 residents and staff members. They found that when nurses used phrases like “good girl” or “How are we feeling?” patients were more aggressive and less cooperative or receptive to care. If addressed as infants, some showed their irritation by grimacing, screaming or refusing to do what staff members asked of them.”

And Karen Austin reports in Elderspeak: Babytalk Directed at Older Adults:

“Public health experts have found that when older adults are exposed to the patronizing language of elderspeak, their performance on tasks decreases and their rates of depression increase.  Other studies show that even people with moderate to severe dementia can tell when people are talking down to them, and it decreases their level of co-operation.” (Italics mine.)

It’s no wonder older people with dementia respond with anger and aggression. Anyone would. I can see myself behaving exactly the same way if and when I get Alzheimer’s disease and someone tells me it’s time to “wake up dear, get up dear, sit down dear, drink your juice dear, calm down dear, do this dear, don’t do that dear, give me that dear, that’s not yours dear, be quiet dear, go to sleep dear…. ” all the while patting me on the hand as if I were a child, which I won’t be when I’m 80, even if I have a brain disease.

“Stick in your ear dear!” I hear my future self snap.To lessen the possibility that I may be labeled violent and aggressive, and then medicated into submission, I’m laying some ground rules ahead of time. Here are 50 names I don’t like being called now (unless you’re my mother or lover), and will like even less when I’m old and living with dementia; use them at your peril:

  1. Angel
  2. Angel face
  3. Baby doll
  4. Baby cakes
  5. Buttercup
  6. Beautiful
  7. Beauty
  8. Cutie
  9. Cutie pie
  10. Darling
  11. Darlin’
  12. Dear
  13. Dear one
  14. Dearest
  15. Dearie
  16. Doll
  17. Duck
  18. Duckie
  19. Gorgeous
  20. Honey
  21. Honey bun
  22. Honey bunch
  23. Honey bunny
  24. Honey cakes
  25. Hun
  26. Love
  27. Love bug
  28. Lovely
  29. Lovey
  30. Lovey dovey
  31. Peaches
  32. Petal
  33. Pet
  34. Poops
  35. Poopsie
  36. Pumpkin
  37. Pussy cat
  38. Precious
  39. Sugar
  40. Sugar pie
  41. Sugar plum
  42. Sugar puss
  43. Sweetie
  44. Sweetheart
  45. Sweetness
  46. Sweet pea
  47. Sweet cheeks
  48. Toots
  49. Tootsie
  50. Treasure

Prefacing any of these with “My” makes them even worse (e.g. My darling, My dear, My love, My precious, My duck, My pet, etc.). You may call me Susan. S-U-S-A-N. Susan. That’s my name. Not dear. Nor lovey. Nor sweetie. Nor Hun.

And by the way, don’t tell me what do either. Consider yourself warned. In a nice way. Sort of 😛

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22 Comments

  1. Very Insightful .. en eye opener for care givers and family members, I am re sharing to spread the awareness

  2. I hear this all the time in the care facilities where I volunteer. I also hear staff using childish variations of residents names. There is this very nice lady I visit with; she is in her 80’s. When I asked her name she told me it was “Elaine” yet many of the staff call her “Laney” which is a nickname she never went by. This also applies to male residents. Female staff will call them “Dear” and “Hun” as well as “Buddy” “Bud” “Buster” “Pal” and “Mister” — people with dementia like to be treated with respect and in my experience they always respond positively when they are addressed by their proper name of preference (and we should ask if they prefer James or Jim, Sue or Susan, Robert of Bob, etc.) and avoid any terms of endearment of “cute” nicknames.

  3. Hi Susan – Great post! I’m a gerontologist who (among other projects) teaches about issues of aging and caregiving. I used to share the Elderspeak article in my Gerontology 101 and dementia related classes. I’m currently teaching a Sociology of Aging course at the college level, and hope to be teaching a course on family caregiving next year. Is it OK if I direct students to your article?

    • Hi Donna,

      I’m glad you liked the post. Not only is it okay for you to direct your students to the article, I would be delighted if you would.

      You and they may also be interested in these posts among others:

      Also, I would love to engage with your students via an online conference call/livestream presentation of some kind by Skype or zoom or whatever. I want to share what I’ve learned as widely as possible.

  4. It’s funny how things are different compared to where you live. Here in the South that is normal and in no way meant to be derogatory. Unless you hear, “Well, bless her heart.” That is different. We call everyone dear. That’s just how we are. No offense meant. I do understand that words can hurt, but I think it depends on your culture which ones they are.

  5. Darla Sue White on

    Susan, I am in complete agreement. I love your writing…so refreshing, & I glean so much useful information. Thank you. Treating the Dementias as if they are children, being condescending will often stay with them, then they will be snarky to those that are not treating them as adults. No one understands why, then they are labeled with “behavioral issues”, “aggressive tendencies”. Difficult to convey this to the caregivers.
    I used to work in the public, and many times I used terms meant to be endearing, ie, baby, sweetie, honey, dear….now the only one I use these terms with are my husband, and rarely sometimes those very close to me.
    But it makes me curious what my reaction will be when I get there….

    • Thanks for the positive feedback Darla <3

      And yes, "No one understands why, then they are labeled with “behavioral issues”, “aggressive tendencies”. Difficult to convey this to the caregivers," you are spot on with this comment. Caregivers of all kinds need to be great detectives to do the job well!

  6. 100% agree. A few years ago, one of the first ladies that came to help me started calling Mom honey.
    At that time Mom was able to react to being called “honey,” and told the lady not to call her honey.
    Mom lives with us now.
    The wonderful 2 ladies that help me a few hours a week address Mom as Mrs….
    thanks for your excellent posts Susan.

    • Yes, it shows respect and infuses dignity and competence when people feel they may be losing both. I believe it’s super important.

      Thanks for sharing your experience Suzette and I’m grateful for your continued support and comments <3

  7. I always look forward to reading your posts and am always enlightened. Totally agree with your comments here. However, I think it’s important to know and understand the person with whom you are interacting. We are from the South, and people there are, generally, accustomed to assigning names of endearment to loved ones and others. My mother has dementia and refers to everyone as “baby” and loves to be addressed in the same manner. It’s not to imply that she’s a kid or infant. It makes people more personable to her. I’ve seen, however, instances where some people were offended when addressed as such. I do agree: it’s vital that we know and understand what demeans and what does not. Thanks for the great post!

    • Dear Anonymous,

      I’m delighted you like my posts and that you look forward to receiving them – it’s great to get positive and constructive feedback.

      I agree with you that it’s important, even critical, to know and understand the person with whom you’re interacting. That’s why person centered care is the way forward. Further, there are cultural variances as well as individual personal variances and preferences. How we address people should be based on the person and what the person feels most comfortable with. That said, just because I call you baby or dear (possibly because I can’t remember your name), does not give you permission to call me baby or dear in return, unless of course I like it as your mother does.

      Like you, I have seen people offended by terms of endearment. And I know for sure that I will be one of them when the time comes.

      Also, above and beyond individual preferences, I think when people consistently use these words to address people with dementia and the elderly generally in institutional environments it tends to create an atmosphere in which those who are receiving care are lessened, they are in a “one down” position.

      Doing “to” and doing “for” are different than doing “with.” The differences may be subtle, but they are there an important I think.

      Thanks for the insightful comment 🙂

  8. Ha! Great post. I do have a habit of using “sweetheart” as my catch-all word often. However, I do it with everyone. I felt like it was more of an endearing word. I completely understand how it would be a problem.
    I myself grimace when I am called “maem”– I realized, after reading this, the name of the person is usually the best. Thank You!

    • CathyinToledo 🙂

      Yes, it’s easy to fall into poor practices, which then become second nature. I know because I do it myself all the time – not with respect to this issue, but others. Self re-examination is a useful tool 🙂

      Thanks for commenting.

  9. Great post, as usual. My mother recently asked me not to use the word “dementia” anymore; she prefers “memory loss problems.” Words have power, more than people realize. I never realized how sarcastic my sense of humour was until I realized the effect it has on my parents – both with dementia, both over 80. So I have adapted my energy, my speech, and my way of thinking. Just because they’re losing their memories doesn’t mean they’re becoming less sensitive.

    • Hey Lorrie,

      “Words have power.”

      Yes, indeed they do.

      You bring up an excellent point: humour. I’ve noticed that sense of humour in some PWD changes as their dementia progresses. They may not find amusing things they once did. Or they may not be able to “get” things that they once did, especially sarcastic wit and “teasing,” which can become really hurtful rather than funny. And while it may not be the intention of the person making a joke to hurt, that may be the result.

      Also, I think that as dementia progresses and capacity is lost in some areas, capacity/skills/abilities may be gained in others. Specifically, I think PWD may attain higher levels with respect to feelings, awareness, and the like — things we might more often associate with the “energetic” and “spiritual” realms.

      My observation is that the person I cared for become more not less sensitive.

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