What unique perspectives or experiences might members of a housekeeping staff bring to the care team at a continuing care retirement community or other residential setting for older adults?
That’s the question with which Cynthia McKee and I began our Association for Gerontology in Higher Education workshop presentation this past Saturday, March 5, 2016. In No longer invisible: Co-creating a “Gerontology: The basics” course with housekeeping staff at a university-based retirement community, before we described the intent, design, and outcomes of the course, we invited the audience members to engage in collaborative inquiry, modeling the approach we used for the project.
I’ll fess up here and admit that we used this question as a way to suss our individual and collective assumptions and ideas about the role of housekeeping staff in providing care for older adults living in settings such as continuing care retirement communities. Members of the housekeeping staff are largely unseen and taken for granted, though they are everywhere, doing the behind-the-scenes work that makes things comfortable and tidy for the rest of us. They clean up after us, they interact with what we leave behind, including the stuff that comes out of our bodies. They are close observers, looking into nooks and crannies and between the layers, keenly aware of our patterns and habits, perhaps most especially when they change.
At the particular CCRC where we piloted our project – and this is not uncommon — housekeeping staff are not official members of the care team and, as such, aren’t seen as sources of expertise and insight when it comes to providing care for the older adults residing at the CCRC, despite the fact that they have intimate, regular contact with residents – relationships with residents — and are often the first to recognize that something isn’t right. But while they are the first to know that something isn’t right, they are often the last to hear when one of their residents has to move to a different part of the community to receive more care or, alas, has died.
Given how close-in housekeeping staff members are to the lives of the older adults whom they help care for, it is crucial that they have at least a basic understanding of aging, later life, and old age. I’m sure no one will contest the importance of a well-trained and well-educated workforce in the diverse field of aging. As well, members of the housekeeping staff are in a role that offers many opportunities to serve in a special kind of “gate-keeper” capacity , they are an early-warning system alerting family and nursing staff that something may have changed for their older clients and should be looked into. All the more reason to be sure they have the conceptual framework and skills necessary to serve in such an important function. All the more reason to consider them a part of the care team, whether officially or not.
But what assumptions do we make about the unique experiences and perspectives members of the housekeeping staff already have and bring to their work? Do we assume that they are “just” a housekeeper and in need of remedial training? Or do we see them as an essential member of the care team, someone who already has special wisdom to offer, someone who is worthy of receiving and co-creating new educational and professional opportunities?
The day before my presentation with Cynthia, on Friday, just moments after we woke up, Simeon and I heard huge, distorted sounds coming from down on the street in front of the very large Westin Long Beach hotel in which this year’s AGHE conference took place. Given that our room was on the 7th floor of a hermetically sealed modern building, the intensity of the sound was rather jarring. I looked out the window to see what was what. What was what, was: a picket line of 10 protesters blocking the entrance end of the driveway into the hotel. Two of the protesters were alternating turns on the bullhorn. It took us a bit of time to decipher what they were saying, but the gist of it was: “Don’t check in!”
Of course – this won’t surprise you, will it? – I had to know the details, I had to find out what was being protested and who the protesters were. A bit of internet research lead me to This. In the process of researching the story, I also discovered this website which catalogs all of the hotels in the United States (and in some Canadian provinces) where there are active labor disputes, worker strikes, or threats of strikes. (I am happy to say, there aren’t any hotels in Oregon on the list. And I won’t be making any future hotel reservations without checking this list, now that I know it exists.)
The hotel in which the conference was taking place, the hotel in which I was staying for five days, was on the list (as are several other Long Beach hotels) and there was evidence that the labor dispute had been going on for quite some time with no resolution in sight. Westin Long Beach service workers were protesting unfair labor practices – lack of over-time compensation, lack of legally-mandated breaks – as well as the equally serious matter of their human right to organize and unionize without undue pressure from management.
Making these discoveries left me with a huge moral dilemma. I didn’t have any conference meetings to attend until 11:00 a.m., so we had planned to spend the morning out-and-about, exploring Long Beach. But going out-and-about would require that we cross the picket line and neither Simeon nor I were willing to do so, even if we could sneak out and into the hotel without being seen. We’d both spent most of our lives (starting even before adulthood) involved in various progressive environmental and social justice movements, not to mention our more recent and not uncontroversial work with the American Association of University Professors, attempting to create a union for faculty and staff at the university where we were previously employed.
But it wasn’t only the issue of crossing the picket line down in front of the hotel. We were also uncertain about whether it was right action to even continue to stay at the hotel. Should we check out and stay elsewhere? Should we contact the management and register a complaint? Should I inquire as to whether or not the organizers of the conference knew the conference would be taking place in a hotel with an active labor dispute? My friend and co-presenter Cynthia was en route to the hotel, having taken an early flight that morning; should I warn her that she would have to cross the picket line in order enter the hotel? I didn’t want her to arrive without being aware of the situation, nor did I want to check out of the hotel and leave her there on her own. I was really stuck.
We only knew about the issues at the center of the protest from what we gleaned from the internet and managed to decipher of what erupted from the bullhorn. I thought perhaps we should head down to the street, introduce ourselves to the protesters, and ask them what they were fighting for, what they felt was at stake. I believe the only way to really know what’s happening is to ask others about their lives, why they are doing what they are doing. Also, not that it was their problem, but I thought that perhaps I could ask the protesters for advice about what I might do about my dilemma — How might they suggest I fulfill my professional responsibilities while also acting consistently with my political commitments? The issue at stake for them was ultimately beside the point — there are plenty of issues that people protest and even picket about that I myself don’t support; I might even want to protest against their protest! (Though in this case, I was on their “side.”) The point is: I support others’ human right to engage in organized action on behalf of the issues and problems that most deeply concern them and impact their lives and the lives of those they care about. So I wanted to ask the protesters: What’s up? What would you have me do? Is there a way we can be in solidarity while you do what you need to do and I do what I need to do?
I was about to head down to the street when the chanting stopped. I looked out our 7th floor window down onto the street. The picket line had dispersed and the protesters were in a huddle at the side of the entrance to the hotel. I thought perhaps they were taking a short break, so I left the window to put on my shoes.
When I returned to the window, the protesters were gone.
At the last session of our co-created Gerontology: The basics course we had a celebration. We toasted each other and our learning journey with mock-mimosas (seemed most appropriate for 7:15 a.m. on a work day!), Oregon strawberries, and fancy pastries. Each participant received an official certificate of completion to document that they’d completed the course, a course which they themselves helped conceptualize and enact. We spent most of our final hour together engaging in a process of review, synthesis, and appreciation of our individual and collective learning. Some of the major take-aways offered by participants evinced the power of learning about new concepts that actually give words to one’s own lived experience, as well as the exciting opportunity of trying out the ideas that we explored in the context of work and family. Participants also talked about developing more appreciation for their co-workers and empathy for their clients, and a deeper understanding of their own and others aging journeys. And they loved having the opportunity to share their experiences, their concerns, hopes, and dreams.
My favorite take-away of all was captured by one of the women who had worked on the housekeeping staff for several years. She shared that the course had given her a “beautiful, amazing opportunity to learn and grow.”