My old boss and current Dean of the Erickson School at UMBC, Judah Ronch, just had a letter-to-the-editor published in the New York Times in response to what I consider an absolutely scandalous and damning expose story about retirement communities that ban residents from eating in the main dining room if they become frail enough to require assisted living or nursing care.
I’m not kidding. Even married couples and longtime friends are barred from eating dinner together if one of the couples has to move out of the independent living section of the retirement community, which in this case is Harbor’s Edge, an upscale CCRC (Continuous Care Retirement Community) in Norfolk, Va. Those in assisted living and nursing care also were barred from community events such as the Fourth of July celebration, Paula Span reported in the Feb. 9 story “Tables Reserved for the Healthiest” in The New Old Age blog.
Here’s what one resident of Harbor’s Edge had to say:
Charges of discrimination quickly followed the new edict. “We’ve been excommunicated,” said Judith Schapiro, 83, an assisted living resident. “I thought segregation ended in 1954.”
I hope most of our readers find this practice discriminatory and sickening. The article points to three similar instances of retirement communities being sued for attempting to segregate diners, and in each instance the communities lost or settled. Harbor’s Edge is currently being sued and I don’t doubt they’ll lose.
But the unfortunate truth is that similar practices are probably fairly widespread. The marketplace for CCRC’s is competitive and the marketing is often ageist. Although having access to assisted living and nursing services “sometime down the road” is a selling point, the target customers are retired but “active” adults, and the marketing reflects this. You will not see people in wheelchairs or walkers on the brochures, and apparently in communities such as Harbor’s Edge you won’t see them in public parts of the retirement community either. At one CCRC I visited frequently while working at UMBC — Erickson Communities at Charleston — the skilled nursing section of the community was not even listed on the map, and residents who moved there said they were rarely if ever visited by their friends in the rest of the community.
Harbor’s Edge defended itself by claiming that Virginia state regulations prohibit residents with various degrees of disability from dining together — an excuse as pathetic as it is false. Virginia state ombudsman Joani Latimer said she knows of no such regulations and said most other Virginia CCRC’s have avoided adopting such discriminatory dining policies.
Harbor’s Edge real motive probably has more to do with the pressure to project an image of “active” aging — and not just to prospective residents, but for those who already live there.
As the article points out, not all residents oppose the discriminatory policy and sadly this is typical as well. Many aging experts I’ve worked with, including Dr. Ronch and Dr. Bill Thomas, have noted that older people often display more ageist attitudes than younger people. And in long term care settings it is often the residents who complain of being around people with disabilities.
To make a point of segregating people because of their physical or mental condition is to threaten their sense of dignity and identity as a valued member of a community. It’s a sad fact that aging, and the disabilities that sometimes accompany it, can begin to trump who you are. We count on good care providers to respect the humanity of each resident and counter their fears by showing all that quality of life will be honored at all levels of care.
What do you think? I’m sure many of our readers work or live in CCRC’s. Have you ever experienced similar treatment or attitudes?