People in nursing homes may be called residents or patients. These terms may be used interchangeably, or they might be used to make a slight distinction between the different types of care nursing homes provide and what the person’s specific condition happens to be.

Who Goes to a Nursing Home?

People typically go into nursing home care for two reasons: either they need short-term rehabilitation or they are no longer able to live independently and need long-term supervision and care. The term nursing home tends to be used for any kind of long-term care, which blurs the issue in everyday speech, but the term should be used for a residential facility where skilled nursing services are provided. This is separate from an assisted living community, though there may be some overlap with memory care and hospice facilities. As a rule, people in nursing homes are either getting therapy to recover from an injury or medical procedure or they are getting 24-hour supervision and therapy services because they have a chronic condition that makes it difficult or impossible to live independently.

Residents Versus Patients, Which is Correct?

Patients are people who get medical treatment, while residents are people who live in a place. Since nursing homes offer residential care on a long-term basis, both terms are strictly accurate. While it’s not an absolute rule, many people choose to use the word patient to describe people who check into a nursing home for a limited time, usually for post-acute rehab services, such as a senior getting occupational therapy after a stroke. Resident implies permanence, which may be more appropriate for seniors who have permanently moved into full-time nursing care. Resident is also the preferred term for seniors in an assisted living community, while patient is a common term for people in the hospital.

The Difference Between Personal and Professional Speech

There is a difference between informal personal speech and the written or professionally spoken word. In everyday speech, most people don’t draw sharp distinctions between the terms they use, as long as their words are not confusing or likely to cause unnecessary offense. If you are speaking to a group of care professionals, or you’re writing about people in a nursing home, it’s usually best to follow a professional style guide, such as AP or the Chicago Manual of Style. AP, which is used by the vast majority of non-scientific publications, actually doesn’t address the issue of resident versus patient. The Chicago Manual, which is the preferred source for scientific and medical publications, uses the terms somewhat interchangeably. Another source for disability-related language, the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ), recommends avoiding the word patient in all but a strictly medical context, preferring “resident” or people-first language like “person with a disability” instead. In a similar vein, both NCDJ and AP urge against using “elderly” unless context makes it necessary, as when it’s part of a facility’s name. Instead, most guides encourage the use of “senior,” “aging citizen” or “older adult” as alternatives for people aged 65 and over.