I’d like to believe that a “retirement community” would be one of the few places in the Western world where we could age however we age, and not worry too much about how we look, or how changes in what we need affect how we are treated. But the Harbor’s Edge retirement community in Norfolk, Virginia–and others around the country–are proving me wrong, according to Paula Span’s post on the New York Times’ “The New Old Age” blog.
… last spring, managers declared the River Terrace and two other dining facilities at the community off limits to anyone but independent living residents. Assisted living residents were told to use their own small dining room; nursing residents were restricted to theirs.
Family members were instructed to join them there. But longtime friends — and several married couples — who lived in separate parts of the facility could no longer share meals in the main dining room. Those in assisted living or nursing care also were also barred from community events like the Fourth of July celebration.
Questions about how much access and autonomy residents have in such complexes, and who gets to decide, have arisen around the country, said Susan Silverstein, an AARP senior attorney.
An assisted living facility in Colorado attempted to keep walkers and wheelchairs out of a communal dining room; in 1996 a state appeals court ruled that action discriminatory. In San Francisco, an assisted living resident who used a walker sued in 2008 when administrators decreed that she couldn’t use the dining room buffet but instead had to be seated for table service. That suit was settled.
Perhaps the most disturbing sentence in Span’s article is this one:
Moreover, managers believed that the policy of letting residents of various degrees of disability dine together violated Virginia state regulations, Mr. Volder said, and left Harbor’s Edge vulnerable to lawsuits or revoked licenses.
The Virginia state ombudsman “could find no statutes” bolstering his position. Legally, the facility’s rights are a morass, because the various levels of care are under different regulatory agencies.
But beneath the legal problem is the clear implication that somehow “healthier” people have a right not to have to rub shoulders with people whose needs are greater is chilling. Some residents feel they “should be able to have what we call quiet enjoyment,” in other words to eat in a room which excludes people who sometimes vomit, or people whose wheelchairs can get entangled with the table service and potentially cause a crash. The article ends with a resident’s son saying, “I can take [my father] to any restaurant in Norfolk or in the state of Virginia, except the one in the building he paid $600,000 to move into.”
No one enjoys sitting at a table with someone who is visibly ill. More to the point, however, no one enjoys being the person who is physically ill. When we isolate people because (for aging or any other reason) they are sometimes less pleasant to be around, we are lying to ourselves and isolating our own futures. We are telling ourselves “that won’t happen to me,” or just possibly, “if that happened to me, I’d know enough not to go out to a nice place.” We are prioritizing our own comfort over compassion.
And it certainly won’t happen to everyone. Some people will die before they ever lose control of bodily functions. Some people would rather die than go out if they might lose control of bodily functions. Others will weaken to the point where they don’t want to go to the nice dining room, even in a wheelchair.
Most, of course, will never be able to afford the places that enforce these choices. People without $600,000 to spend on their old age go through whatever unpleasant parts of aging they go through in some less upscale place–and maybe a less discriminatory one.
Nonetheless, the toxicity of Harbor’s Edge’s policies should not be ignored. We have done a horrifyingly good job, as a culture, of making death disappear, so that comparatively few people ever see dead bodies, let alone touch them, let alone handle and wash and relate to them as people have done with dead loved ones for millennia.
So now that we’ve walled off death, let’s wall off the precursors, the ugly parts of disability, aging, and illness. Let’s avert our eyes and sit in another room. Prioritizing comfort over compassion is fine as an occasional choice; as an enforced life choice, it’s both cruel and self-destructive. As a commercial choice, it’s probably profitable– if Harbor’s Edge wants new customers, showing them what could happen to them is way too close to saying, “Move here and this might happen to you.” Nonetheless, I think everyone (including, in the long run, the community) would benefit from more compassion–and more honesty–and less discrimination.
Thanks to Janet Lafler for the pointer.