I used to work with a guy named Joe Moseley at Barr Systems here in Gainesville. Joe was the most well-liked person at Barr. I think it was because he always made everybody feel good about themselves, and made them feel important too. One of the many secrets in his bag of tricks was this: he called everybody by a nickname. He didn’t just randomly come up with nicknames for everybody on the day they started working at Barr, but if you’d been there long enough, at some point inspiration would hit him and you’d be given your official Joe-Moseley-approved nickname.
Now if you’ve ever been given a nickname, you know that they aren’t always flattering. Perhaps you were the victim of a hurtful nickname back in school, but now that those days are past, who generally calls you by a nickname? If you’re like most people, you replied, “My friends”. Sadly, most nicknames are lost when someone moves into a nursing home. They generally just get called by the name on their medical chart. It’s a subtle form of “identity theft” as I like to call it. You and I have the chance to reverse that identity theft by finding out what those old nicknames were, or, even making up our own!
If case you were wondering, my Joe-Moseley-approved nickname was “Westwood”. The joke around Barr was that it was impossible I was a college grad, since I looked like I was about 14 years old when I started working there (or so they said). So, he named me Westwood out of a reference to Westwood Middle School, where he thought I should have been.
The odd thing is, I love that nickname! To this day I don’t mind being called Westwood. That’s the peculiar thing about nicknames: the same nickname, which when given by an enemy could be extremely hurtful, when given by a friend can be a lot of fun. Joe never said a hurtful word to anyone, so you knew that your nickname was given in good fun. Sometimes the nickname had something to do with a particularly eccentric trait of yours, or a specific incident in which you were involved.
I *love* calling nursing home residents by nicknames. Some of the nicknames we’ve had for current and former residents at Parklands (I’m not even going to begin to try to explain how these came about, but I swear I’m not making these up!):
• High Springs
• Mr. Buckman (not his real name)
• Miss Woods (ditto)
• Old Don
• MacArthur Park
• Sammy Davis Jr.
• Bourbon and Branch
• “The Sheriff”
• Eddie Van Halen
I’ll never forget a resident named Henry Woodard. He and his sister, Sally (“Miss Woods”), lived at the Alachua Nursing Center (now Parklands) a long while back. Henry was blind, but it never slowed him down, and he always could be found laughing and joking with everybody in the halls. There was something really uplifting about just talking to him. When he died, we went with his sister to his funeral down in Micanopy, their home town. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I picked up a program at the funeral, and it said “Celebration of Life for Henry ‘Skybow’ Woodard”. Skybow! What an awesome nickname! (I was told Skybow is an old-fashioned way of saying Rainbow). And a Skybow he certainly was in our lives. What a tragedy that we never got to call him by this wonderful nickname when he was alive! But he never thought to tell us, and we never thought to ask.
I also think about my friend Hugh Carlisle, who I met that very first day I set foot in the nursing home (October 6, 1998). A few years back he left town and moved to Claxton, GA, to be closer to his family (he’s 93 now). The first time I went up to visit him in Claxton, everybody was calling him “Dorsey”. Apparently, he’s never gone by Hugh his entire life! But that’s what everybody in Gainesville called him, simply because it was the name on his medical chart, and no one ever asked if he had another preferred name. (If I ever run a nursing home, that’s going to be the first question I ask new residents).
Anyway, the next time you’re feeling brave, just ask a resident if they used to have a nickname. And if you’re feeling really brave, try calling them by it. Or make one up! It will be up to you to judge when you’re at the right point in your friendship for that, but I can tell you it’s a lot of fun when it works, and can be very beneficial to a friendship. They’ll often reward you with a shy, giggly kind of smile, obviously thrilled to have been found worthy of a nickname. Seems like a little thing, but as we know these little things can make a big difference. So give it a shot!