To say darling or not to say darling - that is the question Print E-mail

By Jane Verity

The three words ‘darling, dearie or sweetie' are often perceived as inappropriate ways to address elderly residents, clients or patients. While this belief may be based on a genuine desire to do the ‘right thing' by our elders, condemning the use of these familiar words can have a devastating negative effect on the person with dementia.

Here is a real life example:

‘Georgie' was a personal career in a residential care facility. She adored her residents and would regularly use the word ‘darling' with genuine regard. A new resident came up to Georgie and said ‘You have so many darlings, can I become one of your darlings too?' There can be no doubt that for this resident, the use of this endearing term was important.

A few weeks later, management enforced a new procedure that prevented staff members addressing residents with endearing terminology to avoid making residents feel belittled or infantilised.  The consequences were that Georgie's residents became upset and unsettled - constantly wanting to know what they had done to upset her. They asked questions such as ‘Why am I no longer your darling?'

Using endearing terminology is not a matter of words, but a matter of attitude. It is not what we say but how we say it that makes the difference. Research* has shown that the actual words we use make up only 7% of our communication; our tone of voice contributes 38%; and our body language 55%. This means that 93% of our communication is non-verbal and this is where we communicate our likes and dislikes, power and authority, and respect or disrespect.

When endearing words such as ‘darl, dear, sweetie' etc are used with compassion, which is our inner desire to enrich another person's life with love and respect, these words cannot harm. However, when used in a detached manner, this terminology can result in an unpleasant and hurtful experience for the person with dementia. The result can be that the person responds with an angry outburst or withdraws emotionally.

In our endeavour to do the right thing by our elders, regulations tend to focus on the face value of the terminology we use. Instead, we need to look beyond the words to the underlying attitudes. Georgie's attitude ignited the human spirit and rekindled the spark. The same words used by a carer with a negative attitude may bruise or break the human spirit, resulting in withdrawal or depression in residents. The question for carers to ask themselves is, if they use endearing terminology, are they using it in a genuine and sincere way?

Jane Verity 


*Research conducted by Albert Mehrabian as outlined in his book Nonverbal Communication (AldineAtherton Inc 1971)