By Emma Meads

I was moved by Erika Jackson’s presentation on Race, Diversity, and Inclusion at Evolve 2021. And I want to share my experience as a 25-year-old caucasian woman who works in senior living. There is so much we can teach residents about how cultural norms are different today compared to when they were growing up.

The attitude “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is common when working with seniors. I disagree. Sure, sometimes it’s easier to remain passive when a resident makes an inappropriate or offensive comment. But that will not help your team members thrive at work. It can foster distrust and lower job satisfaction. I’d like to see more communities take time to have open conversations with staff and find ways to help older adults learn a new perspective or shift their mindset.

When Is It Too Much to Ignore?

Educating seniors on discriminatory behavior is especially difficult because what is considered inappropriate today was not inappropriate when they were young; they may be unaware of language and behaviors that are no longer tolerated. We need to find a way to have an engaging dialogue that is not accusatory. There are many opportunities to have these types of conversations.

When working in a senior living community, it is important to be mindful that this is their home. We want them to be comfortable, at ease, and feel like they belong. They have the right to voice their opinion. But what if they say something insensitive and inappropriate? When is it appropriate to interject?

I was talking with a colleague about uncomfortable situations she has experienced while being alone with a resident. “I was in an elevator with a man and he was coming on to me, I gave a courtesy laugh and walked away quickly when the doors opened.” She told me of another time when blatantly, a resident asked her to sit on his lap. These situations felt sexually inappropriate, but they seemed harmless and were easy to ignore. However, when you hear discriminatory remarks, it becomes so uncomfortable it’s hard not to say what you really think and feel.

Here are some specific situations I have seen while working in senior living:

Difficult Conversations on LGBTQ

I was talking to a coworker, Linda, after our shift and she told me about an uncomfortable conversation she had with a resident earlier in the day. The resident saw her gleaming diamond wedding ring and asked how she met her husband.

My co-worker courageously and with a smile said, “I am actually married to a woman and my wife and I met while in college.” With a scowl of confusion, the resident said, “Really? You don’t look lesbian. That isn’t real love. Just wait until you meet the right guy and you will be swept off your feet.” Linda silently finished dressing her and walked out.

I asked if she spoke to her manager about this but she was too ashamed to mention it. 

Understanding Different Cultures

The sweetest and most caring resident stroked the braided hair of a Black woman. The resident did it innocently, with intrigue and admiration. The woman was so uncomfortable she turned around, smiled, and walked away.

I didn’t know this was inappropriate until my friend told me touching a Black woman’s hair is insulating and can be interpreted as racist. I am glad I know now, and I’d like our residents to know about this too. 

Not Just An Insult, It’s Discrimination

I went to introduce myself to a new resident and asked her how her first few days were. She had just finished her lunch and exclaimed, “Why are the people working here so fat? Everyone who delivers my food is fat and lazy. I do not want my food to be delivered by these fat people!” I was taken aback because I had never heard such blatant cruelly about another person’s body.

This is known as fatphobia, which is a type of oppression that people with large bodies experience. This resident is judging the employees solely on their looks, assuming they are lazy and ill-equipped to do their job effectively.  

Respecting People of Color

I witnessed another incident where a resident was verbally abusive to my co-worker, an African American. The resident said, “I never want to see you in my room again and I will only be assisted by white women. Get out of my room, now!”

Two things happened in this instance:

  1. Management talked to the resident informing them that this type of behavior is unacceptable.
  2. The supervisor put my co-worker on a different rotation so they would not interact with the resident again. 

These situations become extremely more complex when a resident is experiencing memory loss or dementia and does not understand these behaviors are inappropriate. 

Most of the time, these behaviors amongst seniors are not coming from a malicious place, but from a lack of understanding. They might not know they are saying something insensitive and hurtful.

Start the Conversation

Here are some questions you can use to start the conversation at your next team meeting, asking staff about their experiences and opinions. The more open a conversation you have, the more trust you build with your staff.

  • At what point does management need to interject when a resident says something inappropriate to a staff member? 
  • How is a resident supposed to understand cultural differences if no one tells them? 
  • What is the breaking point when the resident is asked to move out? 
  • How can management create a culture where employees can trust that they will do what is right and help them feel comfortable at work?

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