Fearing loss of dignity and privacy

Institutionalized care requires some common sense and tact to make it easier on everyone

  • Apr. 19, 2012 4:00 p.m.

I recently visited an unhappy relative in an elderly care home and listened to her frustration about her living accommodations.

The home itself was clean, with excellent facilities, great window space and nice views.  There were many elderly people sitting around, chatting pleasantly to each other, and everyone has a private room. Staff seemed engaged with the residents, and while a nice sunny Easter Sunday afternoon with plenty of visitors might have been a factor in the generally upbeat mood, my initial impression rated this home high on a scale of nice places to spend time.

Sure enough, when I reached my aunt’s room, I was set upon with a litany of problems. Knowing her rather high maintenance needs throughout her life, I wasn’t surprised that her inability to get exactly what she wanted, when she wanted it, would be a problem. I am pretty sure she’s not winning the congeniality awards from the staff and I don’t envy them their task of trying to make her life more pleasant. She is not an easy person to please.

Still, because I have become more sensitized to listening to the elderly in the last six months, I tried to get past her personal quirks and understand if any of her concerns would be ones that I might share.

If there was one thing that struck me most, it was the matter of privacy. According to my aunt, staff regularly dash in through the door to pick up the wastebasket, bring some juice or clean up an area. The timing is random and the intrusion immediate.

Residents are encouraged to keep their doors open during the day, but with people coming and going in the hallway all the time, not everyone likes their life to be on display.

My aunt, who values her quiet, gets spooked numerous times during the day and awoken constantly from naps.

I am pretty certain that regular visits to a room is part of an institutional philosophy of keeping an eye out for the safety and well-being of everyone, as well as a simple scheduling need to ensure all the tasks that need to be done by varying staff members are fit into the day.  Still, it appealed to me that a couple of simple things might make the process a bit more dignified.

The first option might be a regular routine that the elderly understand. In other words, someone will be in every one or two hours, on a regular basis, so that there is less surprise and an opportunity to schedule those naps a bit better.

Secondly, just a light tap on the door and a moment to allow the elderly to become composed, might reduce the feeling that the staff member is blowing in and out without any consideration for the privacy of the resident. I realize that it might slow down a rotating worker a bit, but it shows at least a modicum of respect for that privacy.

I have a personal aversion to the concept of institutionalized care, because I fear my own loss of dignity and privacy.

Indeed, despite the many advantages of the residence in which my aunt was housed, I ended up leaving there with my personal fears reinforced.

Graham Hookey writes about education, parenting and eldercare.


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