Gero-Punk Praxis: No Longer Invisible

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?

cyndi and jenny

Cyndi McKee, left, and I are pointing at the name of Israel Kirk. She was a member of our facilitation team for the original project. At the start of the project, she was Assistant Manager of Housekeeping. Mid-way through the project, she was promoted to the position of Coordinator of Landscape Personnel. She was unable to attend the conference.

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.


marys woods class

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.”



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Gero-Punk Praxis: Dispatch from the AGHE conference

Hello from partly-sunny Long Beach California! I’m here for the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE) annual conference.

I’ve been here since Wednesday and will be heading back to the fairest city of them all, Portland, OR, on Sunday. In the meanwhile, in addition to attending the conference, I’ve been doing what any proper Gero-Punk does when visiting a new land: observing, asking questions, making notes, and taking a lot of photos; walking for miles; finding cool shops; eating beautiful food; and connecting with fine creatures of all sorts (I’ve seen: cormorants; pelicans; Western sandpipers; marbled godwits; Western grebes; loons)….

…you know, Gero-Punk Praxis!

But how about I give you a little update on what I’ve been doing so far at the conference?

Yesterday afternoon, March 3, 2016, I had the pleasure of serving as the Honorary Gero-Punk on a workshop presentation with colleagues from Portland Community College: Jan Abushakrah, Roger Anunsen, and Michael Faber. The panel, Designing Programs for Encore Learners and Encore Earners: Sharing Today’s Innovations, Exchanging Tomorrow’s Ideas, focused on the many special features of the innovative PCC gerontology program.


If you want to know more about the PCC gerontology program, take a look here: PCC Gerontology Program

Jan Abushakrah and I have been long-time colleagues and have collaborated on many projects and initiatives. In fact, Jan and her crew from PCC are exemplars when it comes to what true collegiality and collaboration looks like. Over the years, we’ve freely exchanged ideas, resources, even faculty and students (in fact, there’s a strong contingent of PCC gerontology students who participate in the Gero-Punk Project, and when I was still faculty at Marylhurst University, Jan would send students my way so they could complete their undergraduate degrees. Reciprocally, over the past 15 years, I have served on the steering committee for the PCC Gerontology program, helped Jan and others at PCC write a report on Boomers returning to college, and participated in a multi-year PCC-system wide initiative to increasing aging awareness). For further evidence of Jan’s excellence, I’m proud to report that she’s receiving the Hiram J Friedsam Mentorship Award for 2016. As well, she’s being inducted into AGHE as a Fellow.  Bravo, friend!

Roger and I have known each other for a decade or so, long before he joined Jan’s faculty. You may know Roger because of his cutting-edge work, with Michael Patterson, on the gifts of the grown-up brain (and mind!). I brought Michael and Roger to the Marylhurst campus several years ago to facilitate a day-long workshop on brain health and aging. They incorporated into their workshop many techniques and practices such as meditation, exercise, eating beautiful food and other holistic interventions. If you haven’t done so yet, check out their work at Mindramp. In their honor, I just enjoyed: a square of bitter-sweet dark chocolate, five walnut halves, and a wee bit of red wine.

Michael Faber and I just met for the first time yesterday though our professional lives have been traveling in parallel paths over the years. He just joined the PCC Gerontology faculty this past Fall. He’s co-author, with Judith Sugar, Robert Riekse, and Henry Holstege, of the text Introduction to Aging: A Positive, Interdisciplinary Approach, published by Springer. And he has a ton of community-based and direct service experience working with older adults. He’d be a great person to talk to if you are sussing how to enter into the complex and multi-faceted field of aging.

So, that’s a bit about my awesome colleagues. Let me tell you a bit more about our awesome workshop.

By intent and design, in our workshop we focused on the following questions:

  • What are examples of best practices and model programs based on research and a proven track record of supporting encore learners to reach their academic goals, and to acquire knowledge and skills to secure meaningful jobs in the field and progress on their chosen career path?
  • What are powerful tools and resources for designing practices and programs to support encore learners and to connect them with their local network of community partners providing internship, job, and entrepreneurial opportunities to realize their encore career?
  • What are creative ways to go about connecting with a vibrant network of gerontology programs and encore organizations, both public and private, which are dedicated to promoting the unique and creative contributions of encore pioneers?

Jan, Roger and Michael focused on the many special feature of the innovative PCC Gerontology program, which is designed around the special gifts and needs of mature adult learners, especially adults who are undertaking life-wide changes in their full-on adulthoods. (I’m using “full-on adulthood” rather than “mid-life” as who the hell knows when mid-life actually is? You only know when the middle was when you get to the end! As well, the students in the PCC program range widely in age – the most experientially- precocious student is in her 80s!)

My role in the workshop was to serve as a provocateur, to be the person who made sure that the many special features of the innovative PCC program were surfaced and made visible to audience members. Also — between you and me – I had an ulterior motive as a member of the facilitation team: I wanted to highlight how Jan and her people, faculty and students alike, embody and enact true collaboration, not only in the context of PCC, but beyond and throughout the community (local, statewide and national).

They didn’t have to include me as a member of their facilitation team, but they did. And they didn’t have to feature and give props to the Gero-Punk Project, but they did. Thanks, comrades!

Next up for me? Tomorrow morning, March 5th, my fantastic colleague and friend (and former graduate student) Cynthia McKee and I will be co-facilitating a workshop, No longer invisible: Co-creating a “Gerontology: The basics” course with housekeeping staff at a university-based retirement community.

The timing of our presentation, which is about creating the causes and conditions for service staff to empower themselves through education, couldn’t be better or more ironically timed. I discovered only this morning that the hotel where the conference is being held and in which we are staying is in a protracted labor dispute with their workers, who are being prevented from organizing and unionizing.

Stay-tuned for more juicy tales of Gero-Punk Praxis….

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Gero-Punk Report: What a successful play-date!

On Thursday, February 11th, 2016, I got to have a Gero-Punk play-date at The Treehouse!

You see, I embarked upon a field trip to Easthampton, Massachusetts, for a day of collaborative inquiry with members of The Treehouse Community, a vibrant intentional community created to enact a powerful model of serving children and families in the foster care system:

Established in 2006, the Treehouse Community is a geographically contained, multigenerational, planned neighborhood where adoptive families, their children and elders invest in one another’s lives. It is a village where children find not just parents and a home, but also grandparents, playmates and an entire neighborhood designed to help them grow up in a secure and nurturing environment.

My friend Libby Hinze is responsible for cooking up the field trip. Libby is working on her MSW at Smith College, specializing in Gerontological social work. Her thesis project focuses on the role of older adults in intentional intergenerational communities such as The Treehouse Community in MA (or at the wonderful Bridge Meadows, in Portland, OR). Libby is interesting in understanding more deeply the ongoing meaning-making processes engaged in by elders living in such communities, why they decided to move to and be a part of the community, how they construct their roles and responsibilities in the community, and what gives them a sense of vitality.

To explore these and other questions, Libby and I co-facilitated an elder-lead symposium, What a meaningful life! We gathered with the elders of the community for most of the day. In the essay below, Libby shares what the experience was like from her perspective.


What a Successful Play-date!


Libby Hinze



What a successful play-date! You never know how play-dates will go, so when it turns out to be so good it seems vitally important to celebrate the experience of playing with friends old and new. The fun I had with this gaggle of gals happened but a few weeks ago (my apologies for not sharing my joy earlier; these kind of delays are a common theme in my graduate school student life). I enticed my friend and colleague Jenny Sasser to come all the way from Oregon to play with us, although I am not sure it is actually that difficult to entice “Dr. Sassy” to come play with a group of women (who prefer to be called the “Hot Mamas”!) who live in an intentional intergenerational community called The Treehouse.

Ever since our play-date on Thursday, February 11th, 2016, my life has been one big mad dash from this duty to that, and the sweetness and calm of that day now seem to be months ago rather than just days. Since our visit on that cold windy February day I have thought a lot about these women but it wasn’t until last night when I woke up in the middle of an impressive thunder storm, and after a somewhat reoccurring dream, that I was able to formulate some deeper thinking about the day’s events.

I will begin with last night’s dream. There is something about last night that holds my attention. The night was turbulent at best. This is typically the coldest time of year here in New England but the weather quickly changed yesterday and we went from a snowy low 30’s to a mild and wild high 50’s. The snowy day turned in to a typical NW down pour. The thunder and lightning began around midnight. Angry, and demanding my attention, the thunder rolled over head. I sat up in bed, the air was filled with electrical charm and I could taste the energy on my tongue. I jostled about for a bit trying to re-position myself in a comfortable way. I don’t know how long it took but eventually I fell back asleep and into a dream. The dream was as turbulent as the night air:

I was walking in a heavy downpour trying to get back to The Treehouse. I had errands to run but the car would not start. I had to feed the kids but the store was closed. I had my books and my backpack but they were getting wet, so wet. I could see dry land across the road. I could see the house up in the tree. People were waving and hollering for me to hurry, it would be dark soon. The water on the road was rising quickly. I began to cross and I could see a car coming. I feared I would not get across. I feared the car would hit me or that I would drown. I made it across, I climbed the stairs to The Treehouse and made my way inside. There was nobody there. I reached in my pocket to grab my phone but it was too wet and wouldn’t work. I wondered where everybody went. I was alone, I could not call out. I was not afraid. I knew they would come back. I knew I was safe. I quietly began to do my work.

This dream reminds me of my day at The Treehouse because the women who showed up to share with us were fearless and passionate about their purposes in life. The paths they choose to journey down in their lives were ones that they were so passionate about that the fear of getting to where they wanted to be was perhaps only momentary and ultimately gave way to a greater outcome. Whether that greater outcome was for the community, the environment, a political stance, or themselves, a greater good it was.

So there they were, here we are: together and alone. Independent, dependent upon and interdependent in this journey of life.

Our mission for the day was to join together with these amazing women and talk about their lives, and who or what inspires them. We explored juicy ideas like meaning making; creating a culture of trust and wisdom; being part of an intergenerational community and the pains of community members who have been lost. We came together. And when we dispersed what I walked away with was a deeper understanding of what it means to be in community with one another and with our own selves.

Some of the characters who played a pivotal role in that day were a minister who facilitates end-of-life discussion groups, a member of The Young at Heart choir, and a woman who walked across the country in solidarity for peace with Mildred Norman, the Peace Pilgrim. There was the grandmother who had been grand-mothering her community all her life. A woman who favored working with children with disabilities and a woman who was one of the pioneers of the Gerontological movement. She was instrumental in creating some of the first community-based programs on aging. These women are busy and it seems to me all their activity did not start after retirement but has been a way of life and a source of energy for them throughout their lives. Watching them certainly got me thinking about my own life and how my own busyness has evolved and transformed over my years.

It all makes me wonder: What is this busyness everyone is up to? Why are we keeping ourselves so busy? In this moment, while I can honestly say my busyness is a response to the external requirements of graduate school, it is I who signed up for this rigorous program knowing that it would be busy and the work would be intense. I think my sense of overwhelming busyness also has to do with how I choose to do the work and how I choose to show up in my life. We did not talk about this “how do you show up in your life” per se with the group, but each participant certainly demonstrated how they choose to participate in the activities that bring meaning to their lives. I mean — here they were spending their afternoon with us, total strangers, and diving in to what makes sense in this moment, and how to be pioneers of new and inventive ways to age in better ways. They didn’t just show up, these women showed up with intention and spirit, inquisitiveness and heart. It seems to make sense to me that this is how they always choose to do the work they do and their busyness has less to do with being busy and more to do with the intention and heart they put in to doing what they love.

One of my favorite authors, Parker Palmer, wrote, “Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people-it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.” Parker reminds me that maybe, just maybe, all this busyness is not about being busy at all. Maybe it is about the richness of our lives, living with others and with ourselves. Maybe it is this richness that brings us courage, wisdom, and faith. It is clear to me that these long-lived souls whom I met at The Treehouse live their lives with intention and depth.

Maybe it is not so much about how much we do, but the intention with which we do what we are doing.


Libby Hinze is a master’s student in Social Work at Smith College in Northampton, MA. Born and raised in Portland, Or. She has her BA in Human Studies from Marylhurst University and is a certified gerontologist. Currently she is doing her second year internship at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA. in the Inpatient Palliative Care and Geriatric Department. She is the single mother of two fabulous young women and the auntie and great-auntie to many more. Her goal after graduation is to return to Oregon and host a gathering where her street is lined right down the middle with a long table where there is room for all to gather and enough food for all.

Palmer, P. (2004). A hidden wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life. San Francisco,    CA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.









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