Terms of endearment – The ‘darling’ debate

A couple of months ago the Care Quality Commission (CQC) released a report detailing an inspection of a care home in Harrogate where the language used by staff when communicating with residents came under the spotlight. Care home staff had been using terms such as “sweetie”, “darling”, “handsome” and “love”, and the inspection team were concerned about these being “demeaning and patronising”.

Since then plenty of people have weighed in with their opinion on the use of terms of endearment in social care settings, and I’ve been fascinated at how polarised viewpoints have been on this issue. Some people feel such terms introduce welcome informality and infer kindness and compassion, whilst others have found them offensive and disrespectful.

Given that my dad spent the last nine years of his life in three different care homes, he and us as his family gathered plenty of experience in the different ways staff addressed dad. These ranged from the formal ‘Mr Britton’ and the less formal use of his forename, all the way through to calling him “uncle”, which was intended by staff as a term of endearment.

I can’t say what dad thought of the different ways in which he was addressed, since he never spoke to me about them or reacted differently depending on how he was addressed. I personally never had a particular issue with any of the ways in which he was addressed, which starkly contrasts with other usage of language that I really did have a massive problem with.

The term “change your nappy” when referring to changing dad’s incontinence pad was amongst the phrases I loathed the most, and something I touched on in my blog post R-E-S-P-E-C-T. This to me was a grossly inappropriate use of language, and interestingly given the largely overseas workforce was a phrase actually used by an English care worker, so it certainly wasn’t a case of inadvertently misunderstanding the meaning.

Ultimately of course, all use of language comes down to what the person being spoken to feels comfortable with. I can’t imagine many older people in a care home would want their incontinence pad to be described as a nappy, but I guess it’s possible that some people MIGHT find that phrase familiar to them and be comfortable with it. I just felt my dad would be extremely offended and it was entirely inappropriate for him.

The same of course is true with terms of endearment, and this was the point so clearly illustrated in the fallout from the CQC report. Whatever someone prefers to be called is what they should be called – individual preference should override any viewpoints staff or indeed inspectors have. But the key point here is choice. 

It’s vital to prominently document how someone likes to be addressed from the moment they enter any type of residential care. This should be known by all staff, including any agency staff from the beginning of their shift, and we should never make assumptions. Shortening forenames isn’t something everyone will like – a gentleman called Jonathan might not want to be called John. The formality of calling someone Mr or Mrs may make them feel uncomfortable… or it may be exactly how they want and expect to be addressed. A person may prefer the use of a middle name, or even prefer a name that isn’t associated with their given name at all.

Then of course there is this tricky area of terms of endearment. In some parts of the UK, especially more northern parts, terms of endearment are commonplace amongst the population and are likely to be heard everywhere from shops to hospitals, with many people finding them reassuring and comforting, like the familiar taste of regional foods or beverages.

But they will never be to everyone’s liking. I’ve been called “love” and “darling” before and not minded, but I wouldn’t appreciate being called “duck” for example. Care providers, no matter how heavy their workload, have to ensure that all individual preferences are catered for and not strayed from, no matter how easy it might be for staff members to revert to what is most familiar to them. In the end, it’s all about person-centred care and that begins from the very first interaction.

Of course staff will never get it right all of the time, that’s human nature and a rare slip of the tongue is forgivable, but it is perhaps worth reflecting on the following. Many people who move into residential care feel they lose a huge amount when they make that move, but to lose your right to be addressed as you would want to be is something no one should ever lose.

Until next time…

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
Like D4Dementia on Facebook

3 thoughts on “Terms of endearment – The ‘darling’ debate

  1. It really depends on the person. Some people may feel uncomfortable being called their first name if they don't know the person addressing them. In those circumstances, Mr, Mrs or Miss (surname) may be more appropriate. You can often get clues from the person's life story, asking anyone else involved in their life, and if you are still unsure, observe the person's body language when you address them – if they are uncomfortable that may be evident through their body language, gestures or mood.

  2. What if they are unable to communicate what they would like to be called? In these cases I think you should use their first name.

  3. My mum's Care Home ask the residents what they would like to be called. Mrs A is called just that. They call mum Betty, Bet and darling, so can't make sene of that.

Comments are closed.