With increased longevity and growing health needs, more older men are using home support services. When (mostly female) workers care for male home support clients, tensions can arise with regards to gender and age relations. On the one hand, clients are often deemed ‘vulnerable’ by virtue of old age, impairment, and poor health. On the other hand, home support workers are vulnerable because many of them are foreign-born, because they are often poorly paid, and because they work in private homes. These are spaces where clients are expected to feel ‘in control.’
Our recently published article in Men and Masculinities (Barken & Sims-Gould, 2018) explores how home care providers confront and respond to masculinity when supporting older men . Our research is based on semi-structured interviews with twenty-four home care providers working for one organization in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Tensions Between Providing Care and a Safe Workplace
Unwanted sexual attention was one aspect of masculinity that was of particular concern for female home support workers. They described how some male clients made sexually explicit comments during routine aspects of care such as bathing and dressing. Workers felt a commitment to provide all clients with good, consistent care, even though it sometimes compromised their safety.
Workers often explained away unwanted sexual attention; attributing it to health changes. One worker associated an older man’s suggestive comments with his progressing dementia. She empathized with the family’s need for care, but it was challenging to maintain her own safety:
“Actually he had to be taken away from me and that was sad because his wife really loved me . . . he had the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s . . . And as soon as his wife would leave he’d sit there and look at me and go, “You’re so beautiful. Are you married?” And I’d say, “You know, I’m not here to talk about my personal stuff. I’m here to help you.” And then it was hard for me to say after that, okay, ‘cause I’m supposed to give a shower ( . . . ) I’d say, “You know, a man your age shouldn’t be thinking like this.” “Well, just because I’m old it doesn’t mean I don’t have a penis.”
This striking passage demonstrates tensions between ageism and sexism in intimate body care. The client’s comments exemplify the dominant or ‘hegemonic’ cultural constructions that associate masculinity with aggression and virility. Yet, the worker’s statement “a man your age shouldn’t be thinking like this” underscores the pervasive ageism that equates sexuality with youth and old age with a loss of sexual ability or interest (Hurd Clarke and Lefkowich 2018).
Responding to Unwanted Sexual Attention
Home support workers discussed strategies they used in response to unwanted sexual attention. Workers first “put their foot down” and attempted to confront troubling behavior themselves. If clients continued to make sexually explicit comments, they would report the issue to their supervisor. Participants indicated their organization had clear policies for supporting care providers who experienced unwanted sexual attention. Workers were never made to return to situations that felt unsafe or uncomfortable:
“Some of them yeah, little bit make uncomfortable. But we have a policy. So when a male client is sexual obvious, we—client make safety and then we can leave. And then we just go to the supervisor. I’m not going to be there again.”
To mitigate (hetero)sexual harassment, the organization would try to replace female workers with men. Some male clients, though, refused care from workers of the same gender. Care from other men threatened some clients’ masculine identities:
“But there is a certain group, I think you would understand, they don’t want to be showered by a male ( . . . ) He said, “I cannot have a male worker give me a shower. I get itchy.” He is just kidding, but to him, he doesn’t want a male worker see him naked . or touch his body. He’d rather have female workers.“
It is certainly not all male clients who make sexually explicit comments. But workers who care for many clients likely experience unwanted sexual attention from some clients. Overt displays of sexuality clearly threaten workers’ safety and make clear the vulnerability facing female, often racialized workers who care for men.
#MeToo and Home Support
These findings are especially significant given increased awareness of workplace sexual harassment with the #MeToo movement. Many of the gains made by #MeToo focus on high status professional careers. There is a need for greater attention to sexual harassment experienced by low-paid workers in invisible spaces, such as clients’ homes. These workers face a unique set of challenges when navigating unwanted sexual attention.
Barken, R., & Sims-Gould, J. (2018). Home Support Workers and Older Men: The Implications of Masculinity for Later Life Care. Men and Masculinities, advance online publication.
Hurd Clarke, L., & Lefkowich, M. (2018). ‘I Don’t Really Have Any Issue with Masculinity’:Older Canadian Men’s Perceptions and Experiences of Aging Masculinity. Journal of Aging Studies, 45, 18–24.
 Study participants primarily discussed clients who conformed to heteronormative masculine identities. Further research is needed to examine diverse gender identities in the home support context.