“I love you”: Should aged care workers tell residents they love them?

Love heart

They are three simple words that mean so much. “I love you” are the words a mother whispers to her baby. They are the words you confess to your true love. They are the words you might utter to a parent on their deathbed.

But should aged care workers tell residents they love them?

This question came up on HelloCare’s Aged Care Worker Support Group recently, and we thought it was an interesting one.

A large majority of support group members who commented said they do tell residents they love them, and it often seems to be something they say last thing at night, when they are putting a resident to bed and saying goodnight.

Some members of the support group said they say it back to residents who say it to them, and others said they are happy to tell a resident they love them because it might be the only time the resident hears those comforting, consoling words.

“[They are] mainly dementia residents or palliative, and I tell them I love them back because I may be the last person they talk to if they pass in their sleep that night. [Then] they go to bed knowing they are loved.

“I like to tell my residents one thing everyday I love about them, like their smile or the way they laugh. 

“We aren’t just there to meet their physical needs, but their emotional as well. 

“I have a palliative resident who gets so lonely in his room he will ring his buzzer just to hold my hand for five minutes to feel a connection to someone.

Cutts’ comment received the post’s largest number of ‘likes’.

But some members of the support group said management at their home does not permit staff to tell residents they love them, or to kiss them on the cheek or display other signs of affection.

Colin McDonnell, dementia and wellbeing consultant at Calvary Care, told HelloCare if a resident told him they loved him, he would redirect that sentiment in a way that still makes them feel good. 

For example, he would say, ‘I feel the same way about you’, ‘It’s good we can spend this time together’ or ‘You make me happy.’

“I don’t know why you’d say [I love you],” McDonnell said.

Leading dementia researcher Tom Kitwood wrote that treachery (deceiving someone to distract or manipulate them or force them into compliance) and infantilism (treating a person in a patronising way) are ways of reducing a person’s personhood.

But at the same time, McDonnell said when talking to someone with dementia, it is important to acknowledge their reality.

A female carer telling a female resident they love them might be construed differently from a female carer telling a male carer the same thing, for example.

“I certainly wouldn’t say it if I was showering someone of the opposite sex,” McDonnell said, noting that he has known of circumstances where a resident has become infatuated with a member of staff.

In the long shadow of the royal commission, McDonnell is also cautious about people overhearing such comments, and misconstruing them.

But he maintains an open mind. “Whatever they feel is right. Whatever works,” he said.

“What’s really important is how you make them feel, if you give someone empathy and it makes them feel good inside.”

What do you think? Is it OK as a carer to say ‘I love you’ to a resident? Share your thoughts with us below.

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  1. I think it is alright to say i love you to a patient because it doesn’t matter who you are (young or old)everybody want’s to be loved by some body. What harm is there in it anyway.

  2. Yes, it is ok to say “I love you” to any Aged Care Resident particularly if the resident has been a resident for a long time and the carer is their “friend”.

  3. Surely, there is little harm in saying “I love you” to many of the residents, the dementia residents, the palliative care residents, lonely or the upset residents; whilst some may try to read more into the words, or read sexual connotations into them, the words can easily be explained by stating the carer/nurse loves all the residents, while others will get comfort from the words.
    Of course you wouldn’t utter the words while showering persons or changing them but there is little harm to the words; words many of us use regularly with friends, family, etc:
    I love you can give a sense of belonging, a sense of being safe, of being care for or merely of being wanted.

  4. At my care facility, we lost several residents to the virus. I frequently tell a few female residents that I love them. This one lady in particular really appreciates hearing that. I believe it is quite comforting for residents to have some communication with staff, as we have been the only contact they had when we were quarantined.

  5. Definitely Not in today’s PC world and with this in mind stating female carer to female resident has any less impact than female to female is same as saying females can’t physically love another female same way mixed couple love. This might seem over the top but I get sick of changing attitudes of the PC crowd to suit them selves. There are thousands of words and sentences that can portray a working relationship and a lot more gestures that portray same without any risk of sexual implications being mistaken by resident or passer-by. It’s all part of the old education in nursing, cover your butt, don’t imply, say or write anything that you would not like publicly displayed in court as it can destroy yours and other family relationships.

  6. The 3 precious words “I Love You” would bring joy to anyone and would be nice to utter them to especially the aged, sick, troubled lonely people. Together with other compliments like “you look beautiful”. “That colour matches your eyes etc go a long way to lift up someone’s spirits

    1. I think carers are smart enough to know the difference between “I love you too” said back to a resident who is looking for affection and those who are sexually inappropriate . As in life, we make choices every day and to legislate that affectionate phrases are inappropriate could be detrimental to many lonely resident. Surely there can be a case by case situation. This is part if individualised care planning and management can support staff this becomes a problem. Years ago “ random terms of endearment” was criticised by the aged care agency but I think genuine loving care is becoming more cold in the pursuit of “professionalism” .

  7. Yes it shows the bond that grows between the the cater and residents
    I know from experience that many residents are isolated and have little contact with family and are appreciative of the care and love they are given
    Don’t take that away from them

  8. Of course it is, imagine having a script you had to work to in aged care.
    As if the job is not already hard enough that they now need to be told what to say.
    Those against saying “I love you” have a bigger problem than they know and should be nowhere near aged care.
    Sorry but I feel very strongly about this ridiculous notion.

  9. As a Trainer/Assessor in Aged Care, this question has been asked by trainees several times. The question is also asked as to how to reply when a resident says “I love you”.

    My answer is to try to initiate or respond without making it too personal. Rather, with something like: “You are very loved by everyone here”. Or “You are very loved by us all”. Or even just, “You are very loved”. Maybe even use the name of a family member whom they love dearly.

    This removes the personal element and is unlikely to be misconstrued either by the resident or overhearers.
    One may anticipate that it’s also true:)

    My experience is that these words bring greater comfort to the resident as they feel safe in the knowledge that they are loved by everyone around them.

    Kind regards

    Vicky

  10. My mother was routinely kissed on the cheek right in front of me by a female Aged Care worker. I used to hate this because this woman was not part of our family and although she might have meant well it was just a reflection of her lack of training and my mother’s vulnerability with dementia.

    It is not okay to tell someone as you tuck them in that you love them. It is also not okay to kiss them or call them ‘Sweetie’, ‘Darling’, ‘Love’, etc. All of these behaviours are demeaning and disempowering. Some of these behaviours could be construed as assault.

    I used to always feel a sense of loss and embarrassment whenever I saw these behaviours. There needs to be clear boundaries between Aged Care workers and residents. Privacy, dignity and respect are the foundations of good care. My view is that:
    – Being overfamiliar and telling a patient you love them,
    – Using other infantile term of endearment,
    – Kissing them without consent,
    – Accepting gifts, etc
    are completely unacceptable and this behaviour should not be tolerated and it has to stop.

  11. Wow! This is a very important discussion. It is a very fine & delicate line care teams are expected to walk. And it raises the question, why then do we call it “care”? On the one hand staff are meant to be responsive & sensitive to elders emotional wellbeing & sense of connectedness to those around them daily. On the other hand, staff are expected to retain appropriate professional boundaries. This makes sense when dealing with “clients” or “consumers” but is this really conducive to creating a sense of home & belonging for those we are caring for? With this formula, the care becomes a transaction rather than a trusted relationship. Is this what we would want when we are cared for? Personally, I agree with Colin McDonnell’s comments & thik it’s about the feeling you leave behind with the elder. I don’t say I love you myself, but similar to Colin, I use other phrases to show my depth of connectedness with my elders. And it is reflected in my eyes because connected eye contact delivers more than just a look.

  12. Empathy, kindness, genuineness and care are what gives life to human interactions. Love can be expressed in so many ways. Yes , we all need to offer that. But in words? those words usually associated with intimate personal connections?

    While I understand that perhaps, for people living with dementia, it may be an important part of care to replicate the loving attention of family, I would hesitate to use those words as a general rule.

    If a carer said that to me as “part of their work” it would be belittling and demeaning and definitely not genuine. Even if a special connection had been formed over years – in the professional setting – it crosses way too many boundaries.

  13. I think “I love you” should not be said by the staff of an aged care home to a resident. Family of the resident may object to that being said. The staff can say I love taking care of you if the resident says I love you.

  14. As a nurse of more that 50 years I have on many occasions expressed my love to patients, clients, residents
    When you provide care to individuals particularly over an extended time you become very familiar with their needs and for some they have on family contact and crave touch and for someone to say they care
    You do grow to love them maybe not quiet in the same way that you love your partner or children however that strong bond and trust brings you to a point that love and caring go hand in hand
    To be with a person who is nearing their end of live is such a privilege and to be able to provide them with comfort and love is so rewarding
    To cry with them and their families is not weak or inappropriate it shows that you are human and feel their pain and share their grief
    I recall that during my training we were not to show emotion, it was not acceptable, we were expected to put things aside and get on with the job and no doubt that this was to cause many nurses some degree of trauma
    So touch your residents in a loving appropriate manner, it is something that is very reassuring and comforting
    I sadly lost my husband 5 years ago and could not have imagined how I would miss that physical contact, just that gentle hand to reassure me in difficult times, I’m very pleased that I have not found it difficult to provide a gentle hand hold or a tap to the shoulder when my past clients have needed comforting

  15. I think it is OK, to say I love you, to residents. If you attention is good and your word I love you, can comfort and change the World for happy place in the difficult time for residents. I don’t think it is ok, just spread to everyone every minute I love you, but if you feeling this resident need it and it helping someone, I think YES and more times YES you can and should say this words!! If you can make old person happy, why don’t say this very important words and make them happy. We all maybe, will be old and kindness and warm words can change someone day and I love you can help to going long way🌹

  16. I am an RN so I would find saying I love you to a resident crosses professional boundaries.
    certainly i could never say it to someone i worked with or for. There are so many other ways to show residents you care about them.

  17. Its a sad indication of our society that we are having this conversation at all. I can’t imagine anyone saying ‘i love you’ unless they had a deep affection and connection to that person no matter what situation. If you’ve ever seen the profound sense of loss a carer feels when a loved resident departs this world or seen carers with heart provide person centered care to a resident, noone would ever question this.
    We need people with heart to provide care – if we keep putting rules for appropriate interaction around relationships in aged care we will have a sterile task directed care system and might as well have robotics in place.
    In my experience carers fill the void for human touch, love and affection they don’t get from family or community connection.

  18. It’s absolutely right to say I love you too to a resident, why? Because like changing them, toileting, feeding, singing along etc… It’s what they want to hear!
    They wouldn’t say I love you in the first place if they weren’t appreciative of the one on one personal care they were receiving.
    It’s stupid enough that toddlers at school can’t be comforted by a teacher when they have a fall or are missing mum.
    This is a human business, treating our clients with decency and respect is the least we can do so for the few malcontent that think it’s inappropriate then perhaps you should ask your residents.

    Let’s keep humanity in care!

  19. Giant, you are a sad shallow individual. These older Australians are looking for comfort, and yes love, perhaps they are missing this from their absentee family.
    When it becomes “inappropriate” to say something kind to make someone feel better then humanity is gone.

  20. I love using the words, “I love you” as im a very loveable person and i say it all the time to my families and friends and on social media and end it with “God Bless”.
    I worked in age care NZ for over 16yrs before i migrated to Australia in 2015. At a staff meeting in NZ i was told that i must not say, “i love you” to the elderly in the age care home i was working in…because they are not part of my family and i should only use those words to my immediate families. Im only there as a carer to take good loving, tender care of them but i was not to get attached to them. I wondered WHY can’t i say those words to aged care people i take care of???…then i was told, its the elders families that disagree to carers using those words to their loved ones.
    I respect that request from their families and tell myself, “the families need to look at the bigger picture” mentioned in the beautiful comments made above.
    The word, “LOVE” is very meaningful and it comes in lots of different ways…as a carer i think we should use it in an appropriately by not allowing the opposite sex to take it in a negative manner.

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