The Things They Never Tell You

Sunflower  May

Here’s something that’s not quite––or not at all––a newsflash: human beings are sexual creatures.
Here’s something that’s (an often quite hilarious) newsflash: old people are still sexual creatures.
They still notice and remark on certain aspects of life that maybe we young folk would prefer they do not. Occasionally, we young folk are the ones they are noticing and remarking about.

At times this attention is sweet, like the nine marriage proposals I’ve received in the course of my career–only three of which were delivered in a location other than the shower room.
Or the time I went to wake up a resident and was subjected to a long, loud verbal tirade about how I was thoroughly unpleasant person and he was his own boss. This tirade derailed the instant he opened his eyes…prompting him to interrupt himself with “My God, you’re beautiful!” From that moment on, he treated every word out of my mouth like Gospel truth, to be obeyed immediately. I admit it: I quite enjoyed being treated like the Queen of the Universe. Being told that I was beautiful enough to derail a full-fledged, would-make-a-toddler-jealous temper tantrum didn’t hurt my confidence any either.
Then there was the time that I noticed a resident’s pant leg needed adjusting. When I bent over in front of her to fix it, I ended up getting a reminder that not everybody born before the 1960’s necessarily conforms to the Norman Rockwell image of heterosexuality. I will say that of all the passes ever made at me, hers was tasteful–far more in the nature of a compliment on my, er, physique than objectifying my body for her viewing pleasure. That woman had game.

∞oOo∞

And then, of course, there’s the far less enjoyable kind of attention. This comes in many forms, from overhearing a group of male residents ranking the female employees by sexiness, to outright asking me to climb into bed with them. You’ve got the “handsy” old men, the incessant dirty jokes, the lewd comments, the creepy stares…and the list goes on. I’m sure every aide out there has had an experience of some kind or another of this nature.
There was a time when I cleaning up an extra large BM that was, in spite of my best efforts, just getting anywhere. I became distracted from the mess when I felt the resident’s hand on my leg, slowly creeping further up. When I told him to remove his hand, he just looked at me, smiled and said: “What, don’t you like it?”
“Are you going to take your hands off me?” I asked him calmly. “Or do I have to use my hands to get yours  off me?” To illustrate my point, I held up my gloved hand…which just happened to be dripping BM. To anyone who says that there’s nothing like cold water to curb a libido, I can only guess that you’ve tried using BM. I’ve never seen anyone back off quite so fast as he did, or stay backed off for quite as long. I hardly needed to report the incident to my supervisor, whose first comment was that I “had managed the situation rather handily“.

Of course, it’s not just the residents who put on such displays of sexism and lechery. I learned very quickly to wary of certain visitors. I’ve had a visitor try to get me in trouble with my boss because I told him to keep his hands to himself. He was always trying to touch the female aides, especially trying to put his hand on a shoulder or upper arm and “steer” us around by squeezing. I objected to being touched so frequently and familiarly without my consent, especially after I politely asked him to stop. Unfortunately for me, he was one of those men who have trouble to concept of “No Means No” and began complaining to my supervisors that I was “rude”, “mean” and “hateful”.
Unfortunately for him, I’m fairly eloquent with written words and not afraid to defend myself.

Nor should you come to the conclusion that it’s only the men who make unwanted sexual advances upon staff. While I have noticed that some of the female residents do as well, they are far fewer…in no small part, I think, to the cultural conditioning that encouraged men to be aggressive and women to be passive. Also, there’s the same mentality at work that leads some of our residents to treat their caregivers as “the help”, instead of a skilled worker. When you’re perceived as standing a rung below them on the social ladder, many people feel as though they’ve been given a pass to act as they want to, without regard to your feelings.
But it exists still, with or without the spotlight. All the crap women have deal with in our still amazingly sexist culture, with a side of proximity. There is, shall we say, an intimacy of the caregiver-resident relationship that often exasperates the “normal” harassment. Personal space boundaries are in a constant state of flux in Long-Term Care. You’re often operating in what Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist who pioneered the field of proxemics, called “intimate distance” (6-18 inches between you and the other person). This close proximity influences the dynamics between you and the resident, especially if that resident has dementia. They either react with hostility, “What is this stranger doing in my personal space?” or an assumption of familiarity, “She’s right next to me, so we must be close.” Or “She’s leaning over me, so she must be open to my attentions”. Inhibitions are lowered or forgotten, causing many people with dementia to act without the social filter. Is it any wonder then, when they make a move and react with confusion when they are shut down?
Of course, empathy in this situation is a tricky thing. No matter how well you’ve managed to put yourself in the resident’s shoes, how much you understand the factors that lead them to act as they do––you cannot deny the validity of your emotions. Sexual harassment is a demeaning experience, even if the perpetrator is your resident. We can’t just shrug it off and say, “Oh, well, it’s not worth the fuss,”. If we aren’t taught–or don’t learn–how to shut down such advances with compassion and firmness, we only encourage more of the same behavior, making life harder for ourselves and all our residents.

Either way, it’s one of the things they never tell you about. It’s one of the areas that we are, for the most part, told to report to our supervisors and then left to figure out on our own. How do you deal with the handsy residents, the lewd comments and other objectifying behaviors without demeaning the resident who is exhibiting the behavior? It’s one of those ethical obstacle-courses we deal with every day.

One thought on “The Things They Never Tell You

  1. donna

    “It’s when a man thinks he’s past love, that he meets his last love.” (from an old Edwardian music-hall show, ”Maid of the Mountains.”) Harassment is one thing. But there’s something else that can happen: because you’re kind and bring joy where those things might be in short supply, a resident/client (even the elderly, even one with some level of dementia) can start to believe he’s in love with his caregiver. Especially since caregivers do get involved in certain intimacies, and indeed things like holding a person’s hand and giving (innocent) hugs are recommended ways of engaging. How do you continue being your usual kind self without creating expectations that can’t be met? That’s a trickier path to navigate but a path we need to learn how to travel, if we’re to serve the residents’ needs as a whole. (I refer to a need for affection and human warmth. I don’t mean overt sexual needs, but I have wondered if homes need to consider hiring sex surrogates for some residents.)

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