Labels Are for Jars Not for People

elderly people are not jarsEver since we entered this world we have been labeled. Newborn. Cute. Colicy. Chubby. Then as we grew our labels grew along with us. Fast, small, smart, tall. Rich, poor, weird or a bore. And we labeled others because there is a natural tendency to put people that we meet in categories.  The further we travelled in life the more the labels – mother, sister, wife, doctor, nurse, shy, lazy, etc. These labels become stereotypes – and these become judgements and biases.

The word label refers to the paper or identifying marks on a jar that tells you something about what’s inside the jar. Based on that label you make assumptions and judgements for what is inside that jar.

lI’s ok to put a description on a jar so you know what’s inside , but it’s not okay to judge people by attaching a label, or description to them, such as “nerd,” “jock,” or “burnout.” Sometime labeling is very useful. It would be impossible to catalogue the information we process during our lives without the aid of labels like “friendly,” “deceitful,” “tasty,” and “dangerous.” But many labels can be harmful, even to the point of limiting people’s abilities just based on assumptions we make from that label.

We need to be very careful in how we label our residents. In a Focus Group that I was a part of we asked seniors who were in “independent living cottages” on a IL/AL campus what was the biggest struggle for them day to day. The top answer was meals. They often found it difficult to make 3 nutritious and tasty meals a day. They were asked why they didn’t go over to the “assisted living” dining room which they could access for free as part of their monthly fees. The overwhelming answer was “I don’t want to be with those people. They are in assisted living! They can’t carry on a conversation and are boring.” I looked around the room at the walkers, wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and other than where they lived on the campus would not have thought of this group as independent. But they would rather eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner than be labeled as “assisted”.  We talked with the participants of the focus group about being labeled – and they did not like it at all. But if they had to be labeled – it was going to be independent!

There is definitely a stereotype and bias for residents in “assisted living” from other residents, staff and healthcare professionals. There are many stereotypes that come with just getting old – can’t drive, slow, doesn’t like change, can’t understand technology. Everyday we meet seniors who are breaking those stereotypes.

No one likes a negative label. I challenge the industry to be person-centered when meeting a new resident and look forward to a time when we don’t put labels on our residents that may negatively impact their independence and fulfillment.

4 replies
  1. janeAnne
    janeAnne says:

    One of the most delightfully worded articles I have seen on this subject which is near and dear to the hearts of so many of us in the 50-plus crowd. Thank you so much!

  2. Paul Rade
    Paul Rade says:

    Hi Andrea,

    Unfortunately labels are something society has created over many centuries and is hard wired into our brains. However, it does not mean that we can’t change the hard wire itself and promote more positive labelling. Having worked in the senior housing industry for so many years it is a wonder that companies still use those labels that only end up separating people from each other. The reality was that in terms of health, residents living in AL versus IL were not that different at all. We should shake the negative IL and AL labels away and create more positive labels like Private Living versus Private Living + and do away with the Independent versus Assisted Living terms altogether.


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