Sep 12, 2019

“Don’t Call Me Sweetie” – The Curious Case Of Aged Care Language And Terminology

While the spoken word is often thought of as a basic form of communication, the choices that we make in regards to the language we use are dependant on a variety of complex influences and circumstances. 

As children, we learn quickly that the way that we speak with our friends is not necessarily appropriate when addressing others, and the social rules and regulations regarding our language choices become more intricate as we continue to grow and venture into the workforce. 

The word ‘care’ is an extremely broad term, and those of us in the aged care industry often have different ideas regarding what the key focus-point of that word should be when ‘providing care’ is framed as an action. 

The clinical aspect of providing care has long been viewed as the most important component of an elderly person’s aged care experience, but the intense spotlight of the Royal Commission has revealed that ensuring aged care residents feel valued and respected is more important than anything else.

There can be no doubt that the way in which a person is spoken to has a profound impact on the way they feel, and the everyday language and terminology being used by staff to address residents has suddenly become a hot topic for debate. 

But the jury is still out on whether a change is needed, and if so, exactly who we should be taking our advice from.

Recently, The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission released a video outlining the new Aged Care Quality Standards, which mentioned the current shift in terminology from calling elderly people ‘care recipients’ to ‘consumers’.

A recent survey conducted by HelloCare asked, “What would you prefer to be called if you lived in a nursing home?”.

A whopping 91 percent of the 1,600 respondents said they would prefer to be called a ‘resident,’ while only nine percent said they wanted to be called a consumer. 

Comments from aged care staff surrounding this issue revealed that a number of aged care facilities have begun instructing staff to use the word ‘consumer’ when referring to their elderly occupants, which has resulted in backlash from both staff and the residents themselves. 

The majority of feedback revealed that the term ‘consumer’ felt very cold, and one commenter revealed their facility went back to using the term ‘resident’ after some debate with management. 

Craig Gear, chief executive officer of the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN), told HelloCare, “We have heard a lot recently about the challenge with the term consumer.”

“The use of the word ‘consumer’ is intended to convey legal consumer protections,” he said.

“It has been criticised as implying choice and a market, when often there isn’t one.”

Terms Of Endearment?

Unsurprisingly, calls for the policing of language in aged care have not ended with the term ‘consumer’.

A groundswell of support has continued to bubble up for names such as ‘sweetie’ and ‘dear’ that are commonly used as terms of endearment by staff towards their residents.

Commonwealth Aged Discrimination Commissioner, Dr. Kaye Patterson, spoke candidly at the Royal Commission in June of this year, claiming that terms like “dear” and “sweetie” reinforce negative stereotypes and infantilise elderly people.

“People don’t see them as the person they are and have been and, for example, belittling comments, you know, “Dear. Sweetie,” not calling somebody by their name, or some older people prefer to be called by Mr. and Mrs. Jones or whatever,” said Dr. Patterson.

“Not respecting them as people who have a history, who still love, who still care about their grandchildren, who still are whole human beings and shouldn’t be infantilised by an unbiased attitude of people thinking they’re lesser persons because they’re now in care.”

One of the real problems that people in the industry face when grappling with an issue as complex as language and terminology, is the fact that most verbal interaction is dictated by the relationship between those engaging in the conversation. 

One of the key components of building a bond with someone is going beyond the realms of formal conversation and part of that can involve developing nicknames and pet names for each other, in fact, developing relationships where you engage in conversation on this level could actually be a great sign that an aged care worker knows and understands the resident. 

Furthermore, there is also the glaringly obvious fact that everybody is different, and the same words being touted as infantilising may actually be the preferred words of conversation for a large number of elderly people. 

The Last Word

The list of issues that aged care staff are being forced to deal with has grown significantly over the last three decades, and the winds of change sweeping through the industry are bound to yield additional tasks that will put even more of a strain on the valuable time staff get to spend with residents. 

While there has not been a lot of iron-clad regulation on language yet, the prospect of this occurring is not far fetched given the propensity of intense media scrutiny to result in knee-jerk reactions.

Policing well-intentioned words would also add more stress to an already stressful environment.

Ensuring that aged care residents feel they are being treated with dignity should be at the forefront of every provider’s mission, and part of that is understanding people’s personal preferences.

Surely, staff that has been deemed competent enough to be able to provide care for vulnerable human beings should also be capable of understanding the effects their words have on residents and using terminology that best suits their individual relationships with them.

And, If all else fails, asking a resident how they prefer to be addressed seems like a fairly simple solution.


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  1. “Dependent” not “Dependant” in this case seeing as we are talking about terminology. I also feel after 30 years of aged care nursing I have just about seen it all. It is not longer fun to work in this industry as there is too much time spent in useless ACFI paperwork and other ” covering your butt” proof you have done something than ever before. Time which could be spent in caring and being with older people. I have worked on the floor and in senior positions and now I spent most of my time writing things to prove what we are doing. it is absolutely ludicrous and I feel we need to get back to basics. By all means have spot visits, offer free supportive audits to help the facilities, like worksafe do, and let us get on with the job.

    1. This article is heartbreaking and shows the absurdity of people making rules about things they have no understanding of. The gross pomposity of people who do not work in the trenches so to speak, of their assumption that they know what elderly care workers think and believe, and what our elder population is or isn’t comfortable with is vulgar. The pinnacle of hubris. Any worker worth their salt will be able to understand what each resident is or isn’t comfortable with, and often times the residents have no problem letting us know what they do or don’t like. Why aren’t these committees, boards, and overlords start working on the impending shortage of services with the baby boomers retiring and reaching ages where care is needed? Is there really no need to start assessing what are the most used and most needed supplies and start figuring out ways to make sure there is always an ample supply, make sure medicines will be always available, and that there are enough quality, loving employees are well trained and appreciated?

  2. At some time I must have crossed over an invisible line. Invisible to me anyway. Suddenly younger people started to call me dearie, dear, sweetie and other such terms. It happens everywhere. The Drs surgery, check out at the supermarket. I find it quite demeaning, I’m 70 years old. I still work. Sometimes I correct the person using that terminology but that’s hard work it happens so often and sometimes the way it’s said sounds almost like an insult. I haven’t changed. Not sure why the way people address me has.

  3. Totally agree with you Linda
    I too have worked in many positions over the years and used to have fun while delivering a high standard of care.
    Now like you majority of my work is documentation to prove what I have done.
    But anyone can document what they have done and in some cases it hasn’t been done as I have found.
    Also with calling Residents names Terms of Endearment it just a matter of dicumenenting their preferred name etc.
    I was in one facility where the family put a note on the wall above the bed to alert staff to address their Mother wih terms of endearment such as sweetie etc as she enjoyed that
    Does this apply to what Residents call staff? I get called sweetie, love, sister etc I don’t mind In some cutures it is respectful to call some Aunt or Uncle
    I am so tired of the Aged Care System where I spend more time writing about a resident/consumer than spending quality time with them.

  4. Simple – all comes down to “know your resident”. Some people love the terms of endearment; others not – just ask them..

    Resident/customer/client/consumer/staff – we’re all people!
    Give us more time to look after our people and less time proving it – the proof is in the pudding – ask them!

  5. Well written article. Thank you Hello Care for putting out some great stuff.I run a beautiful small facility and one of our senior staff refers to some of our permanent residents as ‘lovely’. It is done in a respectful and friendly way and helps to create very nice connections. In saying that our proprietor is not a huge fan and all of our staff are encouraged to politely confirm with the resident first and notice their body language/reaction if they are being addressed in an unfavorable manner. It’s quite simple and creates a comfortable and friendly environment for our residents to call home.
    Granted we have a small facility which makes it easier to create a homely environment however my viewpoint is that if the culture within the facility is friendly, homely with a high level of care then everyone is happy.

  6. Just appallingly ridiculous! If one can’t use a term of endearment with their clients what an awful world would that be? We are creating an environment of more tension and hostility towards loved ones or residents who otherwise are often lonely and neglected by family members. These elderly residents deserve better level of care, love and respect. I am sick to the stomach with the outrageous terminology debacle.


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