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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