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Sexual Harassment at the Nursing Home

The challenges female home-care workers face when caring for elderly men

“I have enormous boobs,” explains 61-year-old Priscilla Robinson, who has been caring for men in their 70s and 80s for the past six years. “I don’t care how old they are, their eyes go straight to my breasts.”

Recently, one of them took it a step further and grabbed Robinson’s hand while telling her how sexy she was. When she politely explained to him that he was being inappropriate, the man got angry and called her the n-word. “I had to put him in his place,” she tells me. “Older men can be very unpredictable with their anger and sexual advances, which is why I’ve decided to only care for senior women from now on.”

Since nine out of 10 home-care workers in the U.S. are female — with a majority being foreign-born and racial or ethnic minorities — Robinson’s experience is hardly an outlier. In January, for example, the late comic book legend Stan Lee was hit with multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment by nurses caring for him who claimed he asked them for oral sex in the shower, among other things. Last October, several women alleged that the late George H.W. Bush groped them from his wheelchair while taking a picture together. And according to a 2012 national study of domestic work in the U.S., 36 percent of live-in domestic workers reported being verbally harassed, sexually abused and subjected to racist slurs.

“Obviously it’s not all older men that are doing this,” explains Rachel Barken, a Canadian sociologist specializing in aging and care work, “but if you’re a female home-care worker seeing multiple old men a day, you’ll likely experience some form of sexual harassment.” Historically, she notes, many men have viewed women’s bodies as something they can access for sexual pleasure. As such, some older men objectify female workers by taking for granted what they consider to be a “man’s right” to a woman’s body.

Bella Yacoob, a 56-year-old Iranian home-care worker, has cared for mostly bedridden senior men in L.A. for the past fifteen years. “Sometimes, if I’m holding their hand, they’ll hold it tighter and closer to their groin,” she explains. “It’s a very fine line. They slap me on my backside and get very close when I’m transferring them from a chair to a bathroom or shower. Sometimes they’ll hold me in the wrong area, like between my legs. It might be an accident, but I don’t believe it’s an accident.”

I’ve also been taking care of a two-year-old boy,” she continues. “One day out of the blue, he slapped me on the back and said, ‘You know what? Your butt is big!’ I realized in that moment just how similar old men can be to toddlers.” Similarly, she adds, just as 11- or 12-year-old boys can be sexually inappropriate, this too can happen with older men.”

Likewise in the “stupid teen humor” department, Yacoob tells me an octogenarian at the assisted-living home where she was working began rolling his walker into other residents’ rooms while they slept to steal the false teeth they kept in jars on their dressers. “He thought it was hilarious to put them in his own mouth and smile, but it was a fiasco. We had to bring in a dental specialist to figure out what set of teeth belonged to each person.”

The reason such hijinks — whether sexual or dental — is generally considered benign is because these men’s brains are damaged, explains Kathy Nelson, owner of Visiting Angels Santa Monica, a leading senior home-care service franchised across America. “If you’re dealing with a male who has dementia, his ability to screen what he says and does can be severely compromised. When your brain’s hippocampus is fully developed [which may not happen completely until age 25], you don’t say many of the things you might think. Like, ‘Wow, you’re really fat.’” But that wiring is literally dying when you have dementia, and because men think about sex more than women, it’s not uncommon for them to express it freely after a certain age.

That’s why some people, like Eileen “Pinky” Clark — a 66-year-old home-care worker in New Jersey who specializes in caring for senior men with ALS and Parkinson’s — think women are in the wrong business if they can’t handle an occasional sexually charged comment. In fact, she says it’s healthy for old men to express their sexuality. “A lot of times I’ll kind of flirt back,” she tells me. “Like, ‘Oh, you say that to all the girls.’ I don’t want to hurt their masculinity because it’s pretty well in the shitter already. This is their final act; they might as well feel as good as they can.”

Besides, says Nicole Lawrence, a geriatrician in L.A., if a man is at a point in his life where he requires a caregiver, he likely has cognitive impairment. “If he can’t bathe himself, balance a check book or drive a car to the grocery store, it’s going to be confusing for him if someone is suddenly giving him a bath,” she tells me. “So if they make sexual comments, it’s almost always related to the fact that they have dementia and don’t understand why someone is touching them while they’re naked.”

Pinky, however, isn’t so sure. Maybe they play it off like they’re confused, but she says her older male clients know what they’re doing. For example, she would bathe an uncircumcised 80-year-old man with Parkinson’s. After soaping up his back and chest, she’d hand him the sponge and tell him to “do his personals.” “He’d say, ‘The other nurse cleans it for me.’ And I’d say with a smile, ‘You know what, Bob? If you can put food to your mouth, you can clean your own personals.’ Then I’d make a joke, like, ‘Plus, you have Parkinson’s. If you start to shake, I’ll give you an extra five minutes in the shower,’ and play it off as fun banter. He wouldn’t know what to think, which is good because I wasn’t trying to deny him or put him down.”

To remind herself to be patient, compassionate and empathetic when caring for older men, Pinky keeps a poem in her back pocket — “Cranky Old Man” — which was found by a man’s home-care worker after he died. Pinky shares it with younger female care workers, explaining it to be the kind of compassion she hopes they’ll offer the men and women they’re caring for. It ends like this:

I’m now an old man… and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age… look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles… grace and vigor, depart.
There is now a stone… where I once had a heart.

But inside this old carcass a young man still dwells.
And now and again… my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys… I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living… life over again.

I think of the years, all too few… gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact… that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people… open and see.
Not a cranky old man.

Look closer… see… ME!

In the #MeToo age, it seems counterintuitive to give men a pass for behavior that would typically get them fired, if not arrested. But that’s precisely what all of the female home-care workers I spoke with suggested doing, each rejecting any parallels to the #MeToo movement. (In fact, studies have shown that older men without cognitive deficiencies are actually more likely to agree with women on #MeToo issues.)

Which might explain why, if one of Pinky’s senior male clients starts masturbating in front of her, she just goes with it. “It’s a natural reflex,” she explains. “If an older gentleman — especially if he’s cognitively impaired — is able to still get an erection, I’ll usually say, ‘Have at it, buddy,’ and go make us a cup of tea in the kitchen. It’s just part of the job. If I come back in five minutes and he’s still at it, I’ll say, ‘Alright it’s time to put your toy away. We’re gonna play some cards and go for a walk.’”