Workers, Residents, and Sexuality in Residential Long-Term Care

by Alisa Grigorovich
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Recent public attention has been drawn to sexualized interactions between older residents living in long-term care through highly publicised nursing home scandals. What is less known is that sexualized interactions also occur between workers and residents in long-term care. An example of this is workers receiving unwanted sexual attention from residents they provide care to. Unwanted sexual attention can include sexual comments from residents, bodily exposure and masturbation directed at workers, or residents touching or pinching workers’ bodies. Recent empirical research suggests that this is a frequent experience for workers, and that they find such interactions to be both distressing and difficult to manage in the context of providing care. However, with few exceptions, critical gerontologists and feminist scholars have paid little attention to such interactions. Efforts to explore issues of sexuality in long-term care have primarily focused on the micro-level of care, with emphasis on the description and counting of residents’ ‘inappropriate sexual behaviors.’ Studies also tend to individualize unwanted sexual attention as a problem of individual aberration (e.g. behavioural disinhibition), neglecting to consider systemic and organizational factors (e.g. meso and macro levels) such as sexism, racialization, and the commodification of care. Finally, the limited available research on workers’ experiences problematically frames all types of unwanted sexual attention as a form of sexual harassment. Yet workers themselves rarely interpret such attention from residents as harassment, or respond with recourse to formal (administrative, legal) remedies designed to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Consequently, there is the need for theoretically informed and intersectional research, to better understand this phenomenon.

In my postdoctoral research I am exploring workers’ experiences of unwanted sexual attention from residents by conducting a multi-method ethnographic study from one long-term care home in central Ontario. My research is informed by an intersectional and critical perspective – feminist political economy – and I will be drawing upon gerontological and feminist research on bodywork and ethics. As the first step, I am conducting a document review of workers’ professional and educational curricula, existing legislation and guidelines governing their practice, and institutional regulations related to sexuality and intimacy in long-term care. This will allow me to understand what procedures workers are expected to follow when encountering sexual attention from residents, and the training that they receive. I will also conduct observations of workers (e.g. personal support workers, nurses) interacting with residents in the home and team meetings to understand how work culture and organizational approaches influence workers’ responses to sexual attention. Following the observations, I will interview these workers to explore how they perceive sexual attention, their experiences of it, and their responses.

There is an urgent need to better understand workers’ experiences of unwanted sexual attention in long-term care in order to develop appropriate education, guidelines and policies. My research will support such efforts by providing critical insights regarding workers’ experiences and how we can better support a good quality of work-life for staff and quality care for residents.

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