The place of informality in elderly care – 1
When my mother was about my age, she spent two years caring for her elderly aunt. She moved her into her own house, cooked, fetched and carried and dealt with doctors and hospitals. My aunt’s name was Connie Pledger and in those days, 30 years ago, professional people still addressed clients and patients with some formality. Mother would receive phone calls about ‘Mrs Pledger’ and she couldn’t help correcting them by saying ‘Miss Pledger.’ It was important to her, as it was to Connie, to get it right. Proper, formal manners were synonymous with respect. As my mother always said, ‘good manners are a sensitivity to the feelings of others.’ It was a small but important thing, a little campaign to ensure Connie was honoured and respected in every possible way up to the end of her life.
Things have changed. As my mother became more and more unwell, during the past few years, she had to get used to doctors, nurses, carers and just about everyone else she encountered, calling her Caroline instead of Mrs Stack. After a while she began to appreciate the friendliness and the sense of connection that comes with using a given name, rather than a surname and title.
I, however, never really got used to it. She was my mother and I had grown up with everyone calling her Mrs Stack. Although I knew we were in different times and even though I have always been happy with everyone using my own first name, it just felt disrespectful when people called my mother Caroline, unless they were near her age, or family, and knew her well. Of course I never made a fuss, it didn’t matter, she was happy with it, I was just being a grumpy kid.
But then, right at the end, something happened. In the last few days, long after she had slipped into unconsciousness, a District Nurse turned up and called her Mrs Stack. Don’t get me wrong, all the DNs – and I met quite a few of them – were lovely and respectful and so very caring. But this one nurse called her Mrs Stack every time she came. And I absolutely loved it.
I remember thinking, this is probably the last time she will be called Mrs Stack. She wasn’t aware, but I was, and I was so grateful. Of course the carers, who had become like our family and were full of love and compassion, used her first name. That was as it should have been. But this nurse hadn’t met her before and she adopted a respectful formality, addressing my mother as if she were someone who might make decisions, provide a signature, write a cheque, drive a car. The memory of that small, gracious action fills me with quiet joy even now.