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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published October 10 2010

Bursack: Exception needed in addressing woman

Dear Carol: My mother is in a nursing home. She has mid-stage dementia. The home is great in most ways, but I wish the whole staff could learn that she responds best to Maggie, not her given name of Margaret. The name on the door says Margaret. Any suggestions about getting the staff to use her nickname? – Bruce

Dear Bruce: Modern nursing homes are training staff to use respectful names for the elders, rather than names that some find demeaning, such as “honey” and “dear.” That is good in many ways, as elders need to feel respected, and many aren’t used to younger people calling them by their first names let alone a nickname or endearment of any kind.

However, in cases such as yours, more communication is necessary. My dad had been known by his nickname, Brad, for most of his adult life. As he aged, he grew more used to his given name, Clarence, when used by strangers, but he still preferred people who knew him to call him Brad.

After a failed brain surgery threw him into total dementia, he needed nursing home care. The home we selected was near my home and top notch. Because my uncle had been in that nursing home for several years, I knew the staff well. In time, several more of my elders came to live there, as well.

The regular nurses and assistants knew to call Dad by his nickname, even though Clarence was on his chart and on his door. However, new staff and people who didn’t care for him regularly would generally call him Clarence.

That’s why I’m a fan of having a white board inside a resident’s room where information about the elder can be listed. This information should include what the person’s interests are and what he or she did throughout life, such as job information, volunteering or a homemaker. It’s nice to include the names of children and other close relatives, as well. The top line on the board, however, should read, “Likes to be called Maggie” or “Likes to be called Brad.” Then, the staff and others can get a good feel for how to best approach this elder.

Names are tricky. Each person is unique and that uniqueness should be honored. Respect for elders who have already lost so much of their lives to dementia or other ailments should be paramount. Please suggest this simple fix for your mother. For now, I’d place a large note above her bed and chair asking the staff to call her Maggie.


Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.