Gillian Jones: What's my name again?


NORTH ADAMS — "Mom! Mom! Ma!" I call to my mother in the next room. She doesn't answer.

"Rita!" I exclaim.

"What?" she replies FINALLY, but only after I've said her given name.

My mom's name is Rita, but, until recently, I've only ever called her by some derivative of mother. Ma, mom, mommy, mum, mother are all the terms I use to call her by. Now she sometimes doesn't even respond when I call her by those familiar names, instead looking blankly into space.

I remember the first time I heard nurses and aides use her proper name in the nursing home. Now our caregivers use her name all the time at home.

"How are you doing, Rita? Are you in pain, Rita? Are you hungry, Rita?

My mom's given name is Rita and while I've always known that, I've never called her, or even referred to her, as Rita ... until now.


Recently in a moment of confusion, she told me she didn't have any children. I tried not to take it personally, after all she has dementia and cannot help it. I smiled and wondered who she thought I was. She says "our mother," often, when referring to my grandmother, her mother. I usually just go along, or at least try to. Sometimes I want to get inside her head and imagine her world at that moment. Am I at least a relative, a sister or cousin?

"Jill ... Jill ... Gillian! Where are you?" she calls from the bathroom.

"I'm right here mom!" I say. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Come here, Jill!" she cries.

Then when I go to her and walk away slightly, she cries more.

"Where are you going? Don't leave me," she cries.

Now, I've gotten to hate hearing my own name! Sometimes she calls me incessantly and doesn't seem to remember that she saw me just a moment ago.

"I'm making you lunch Rita! I'm feeding the cats! You are not alone! I am here with you!"

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And then there is the way she sometimes says my name, which is desperate, full of fear and anxiety.

"Jiiiilllllll! Giiiillllliiiiaaaan!"

"Yes, I am right here," I say, trying hard to assure her.

My name Gillian and nickname Jill, has always been confusing. Gillian is not spelled Jillian! Gillian is pronounced with a soft G or J sound, not a hard G, and Jill is with a J not a G. Gill is what a fish uses to breathe with. Confused? Most people are. My dad said even the priest at my baptism pronounced my name with a hard G and he had to correct him. I just tell most people that my name is the same as the actress Gillian Anderson of "The X-Files."

As for my mom, I am using more nicknames or terms of endearment for her. Love, dear, my sweet, Miss Rita, Mrs. Jones, my friend, are just a few. When I was young, she sometimes called me slim because I was so skinny and taller than her. Usually she called me that when she needed me to get something for her from a high cabinet in the kitchen. Now she points at my big belly, my mid-life crisis, and makes a critical comment. I laugh and say that I am middle aged and even starting to suffer from menopausal symptoms.

"Are you older than me?" she asks.

Recently she pointed at Dan, my boyfriend, and called him "Baldy." Fortunately Dan has had a smooth head for a while now and is good-natured about it.

In this new reality, I find myself saying "Rita" way more often than "Mom" now. When I refer to or speak to her, I often use her name, not her title, as I have my whole life.

"Did Rita eat? Did Rita take her meds? What kind of mood is Rita in?" I ask or text, "Is Rita in bed yet?"

I suppose it is more efficient to say her name, even though "my mom" has the same number of syllables — but it is more letters to write.


"Ma? Why are you calling me ma when I'm your sister," she said recently when my brother was talking to her on the phone.

"Hi Ma," he must have just said in greeting, like he's always done.

I wonder about what it will be like if she forgets me altogether. People have said that it can happen. Perhaps I will have to make up a brand new name for myself. I could also have fun trying on different ones. Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella, Sophia, Charlotte, Mia or Amelia are just some of the most popular girls names for this year, according to the internet.

Calling my mom by her name, and being comfortable with it, might also be the beginning of the process of me getting ready to let her go.

An Eagle digital visual journalist, Gillian Jones is writing a monthly oped series on caregiving. Her email is


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