Helpful Terminology for New Caregivers

A helpful guide to caregiving terms and abbreviations. 

Have you just taken over the role of family caregiver? If so, you may soon find yourself bombarded with hundreds of unfamiliar words and confusing terms.

If you aren't a medical professional, then you can be quickly overwhelmed with you see these words  appear on paperwork. (and there will be a lot of paperwork).

The following guide won't make you an expert overnight, but it will give you a quick introduction to some of the most common terms you will hear and read as a caregiver:

Basic Care Related Terms and Abbreviations


The abbreviation for an assisted living facility.


Abbreviation for long term care


Abbreviation for skilled nursing facility (you may hear some refer to this as a "sniff")


Specialized end-of-life care provided by professionals specifically trained to provide palliative care.

Palliative Care

A care method that takes in the whole person and their needs, and focus on quality of life rather than prolonging life. This is usually the type of care given to those at the end of life or those with terminal illnesses, and it revolves around keeping them safe, comfortable, pain-free and emotionally supported.

This is similar to, and sometimes the same as, holistic care.

Holistic Care

A "whole body" approach to medical care. For example, in traditional care a person with diabetes would be given insulin. In holistic care, they would be given diet plans, nutritional support, emotional support for coping with the illness, etc. As well as safe alternative therapies such as massage for leg pain and circulation issues.

The point of holistic care is to care for all aspects of the person's needs rather than just the affliction.

Care Plan

The complete encyclopedia (it seems) of your loved one's medical and personal needs. Care plans are individualized guides to what a person needs in every aspect of their care.
You may never see one, but if your loved one is in a facility you may be asked to go over one or to agree to treatments and procedures listed in the care plan.

Legal Terms Regarding Caregiving

Not only do you have to become an overnight nurse when you take up caregiving, you also need to be a lawyer! Here are a few legal terms that caregivers need to know:


A person assigned by a court to handle the financial obligations of another person. A conservator is named when a person is no longer capable of making sound decisions on their own.

Advanced Directive

A legal document that a person writes to clarify their wishes for future medical care and treatments. It usually goes along with a living will, durable power of attorney and durable power of attorney for healthcare.

Living Will

Much like an advanced directive, a living will states what a person wishes as far as their care, should they no longer be able to make decisions for themselves.

Durable Power of Attorney

A contract that delegates power to a third party for financial responsibility. Without this paper, a caregiver may not be able to arrange for payment of medical care.

Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

This is where a senior citizen designates a specific person oversee their medical care in the event that they are no longer capable of making rational decisions.


The person responsible for carrying out actions listed in a will.


A person who receives, investigates and answers complaints and issues regarding care facilities.


The person responsible for legal, medical, and financial decisions made on a senior citizens behalf. This may or may not be the primary caregiver.


Adult protection services. They function just like child protection services, and are responsible for investigating and reporting neglect, poor living conditions, and cases of abuse to or by an elder.


Do Not Resuscitate order. This is an order written by a doctor by request of a patient or guardian. In basic form, it means that medical professionals are not supposed to try to restart a heart that has stopped beating. The DNR can sometimes be more complex, depending on a person's personal beliefs, wishes, and condition.

Just remember when you see this on paperwork, it is not medical shorthand for "donor".


Geriatric Case Manager. A person who works with older adults and their relatives to make certain the older person's individual needs are being met, and the appropriate services are arranged.

Medical  Terms for the Caregiver

Durable Medical Equipment. This doesn't mean sturdy, top-quality equipment. It is a term that refers to reusable equipment, such as hospital beds, wheelchairs, walkers, etc.

Insurance companies sometimes pay for these items to be purchased or rented.


Activities of daily living. These are everyday tasks that your loved one could once do for themselves, such as dressing, grooming, eating, cleaning, cooking, etc. The more ADLs a person can perform alone or with minimal assistance, the better their quality of life.


A person's ability and freedom to make decisions about their own body and care. In a care facility, "autonomy" is a resident's right to eat, sleep, bathe, dress, act etc. when and how they want, (as long as it is safe for themselves and others). It also relates to how they want to spend their time, arrange their environment, socialize, and decide for or against medical procedures.
The more autonomy an elder has, the better their quality of life.

Enteral Nutrition

Any nutrition or medication delivered via intravenous (IV) or stomach tubing.

PEG Tube

Percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy. This is a big term for a small tube that is introduced through the abdominal wall in order to deliver food, liquids and medications directly into the stomach.

Decubitus Ulcer 

The medical term for a bedsore or pressure ulcer. You may hear someone refer to one as simply "a decubitus."

Acute Vs. Chronic

An acute illness or pain is one that comes on suddenly and is usually temporary. Chronic pain or illness is one that repeats, cycles or is always present.

Sign Vs. Symptom

When assessing patients, or asking caregivers for information about a senior, doctors will ask for signs and symptoms. A sign is any symptom which can be seen, heard, smelled, or felt by someone other than the patient. A symptom is something that only the patient can feel themselves.

For example, a headache is a symptom, a rash is a sign. These may also be referred to as objective or subjective symptoms (confusing right?) An objective symptom is a sign (rash, fever, racing pulse, wound, etc.) that can be measured by anyone. A subjective symptom is one that can only be felt by the patient.

Demand Clarification

There are literally thousands of medical terms and abbreviations that you will encounter as a caregiver. Many will be in writing, others will be spoken by professionals in the health care industry.

If you don't understand what something means, demand clarification. This is especially important with regards to legal documents and insurance policies. Not having a crystal clean understanding of unfamiliar terms can lead to serious medical issues and major financial woes.  Caregivers should always research everything, get second opinions, and insist that things are explained as simply as possible.