Their names are Audrey, Erma, Evelyn, Mary Ann, and Ruth. They are five women – of sometimes up to a dozen – that live in a cottage that’s part of a retirement community south of Omaha. I love their sweet, old-fashioned names. Erma is my grandmother. With the rest, I exchange smiles but we rarely speak to each other. Most of them can’t.
I don’t know the name of the lone male who is currently there. I can tell you he likes Husker football, and his habit after finishing his coffee is to lift and drop the spoon in his mug so it rhythmically “ting, ting, tings!” against the rim. He wants more coffee, but he knows, like the others do, that there is a lot of waiting for what you want. He’s a little bit ornery, which I think might be the better way to be, in a place like this.
I know the statistics, we all do: women outlive men. The Institute on Aging reports that two-thirds of Americans age 85+ are women. And as you’d expect, the employees — care directors, cooks, nurses, aides, therapists — are also mostly women. It is a place of women, run by women, and they will try to fit you into how they think things should be run.
What you want to believe is that for enough money (and it IS a lot of money — average monthly cost for a private room in 2016 in the US can be $3 – $10,000 per month depending on the level of care needed), you will be cared for by kind and gentle professionals who are delighted to be with you and have your best interests at heart. Don’t get me wrong — I have observed no activity or evidence that anyone in the cottage is being mistreated. But nobody’s wiping old lady asses from the goodness of their hearts. There are schedules and rules and power hierarchies. There are passive-aggressive little nudges letting you, the family member, know that you are the outsider here. “Oh, you didn’t order your lunch when you arrived this morning? Sorry, cook says there isn’t enough food for an extra meal today. You should have told us when you got here. Next time tell us as soon as you come in.” I can tell you there is almost always extra food, and at the end of the day or when they have downtime, the aides are eating the food. Is it a small benefit from a thankless job? Okay, sure. And it’s one of those things you can’t accuse them of – they’re not doing anything wrong. Just asserting their power in they ways that they can.
My grandmother is a strong and vibrant woman. Dementia is robbing her from herself, and from us, but like all of the residents, she deserves care and respect. The staff know her as a relatively placid woman, often confused, while I know she is anything but. Was. The funny thing is, I think the staff do care about her. It’s the rest of us who get in their way, interrupt their schedules, hold them to higher standards. (Tough shit.)
It makes me think of the way women in the workplace sometimes treat each other. I have a situation now with a colleague getting in micro-digs, typically when she’s been embarrassed by something she didn’t know or screwed up, especially if it’s something I advised her not to do. I’m not 25 anymore, I cuss it out among friends, but ultimately I’m not worrying about it. As a former boss told me in a similar situation, “Ann, everyone knows.” And they do. People like my colleague dig their own graves.
But what if it weren’t like that. What if this young up-and-comer didn’t feel threatened by me and instead could be honest about what she really wanted and why? What if women really truly supported each other instead of resorting to sabotage? Sure, the men hold the higher-level jobs and political offices and make more money… but we’re going to be around longer.
I am incredibly lucky to have a number of strong women who have supported and continue to support me. All of us, women and men, need to encourage each other to tell truths and share love. Nursing home aides shouldn’t need to score points to assert dominance. Family members of Audrey, Erma, and the rest should feel welcome to tell the stories of their mothers and grandmothers, sisters and great-aunts and celebrate these women. And celebrate the women who care for them.