What is more humiliating to an older adult than to be addressed as ‘sweetie’ or ‘dear’ or some other condescending term? It’s not enough that older adults experience one loss after another. For example, loss of hearing, loss of a loved one, or loss of independence. In the process they also suffer the loss of dignity and self-worth.
Too often we treat older adults like children because they may be incapable of carrying out some of their activities of daily living (ADL’s). We mistake their diminished ADL capacity for mental or psychological regression. What we forget is that addressing them condescendingly may only reinforce their despair and hopelessness. Just because we believe these so-called terms of endearment may instill a bond of friendship, doesn’t mean that it’s OK to use them with older adults.
Imagine how belittling it must be to an older adult resident of an assisted living or nursing home when a staff member young enough to be their grandchild calls them by their first name without asking permission.
Many older adults were used to being addressed as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’ before moving to a nursing home or assisted living residence. Too often, however, when they enter such a ‘facility’, the staff customarily addresses them either by their first name or something worse like ‘hon’ or ‘dearie’ or ‘love.’ When registering a prospective resident of an independent or assisted living home, why not take a moment to ask him or her how they would like to be addressed. (Ditto for doctors: Why don’t doctors inquire of prospective patients how they’d like to be addressed after they introduce themselves as “Doctor so-and so’?)
Rather than create an emotional connection with the resident, research shows that these expressions often accentuate his or her negative self-perception. Persons in their eighties and nineties need all the respect as they can get.
Let’s keep in mind both the tone and language we use when conversing with older adults. Are we remembering to talk with them as elders who deserve our esteem and respect, or as someone who because they depend on our assistance has lost her or his claim to a positive self-image?