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Beyond Age Discrimination

State Government

Comments from Cheryl Hennen, a Representative of the Office of Ombudsman for Long Term Care

From the Rights Stuff Newsletter, July 2009

In a series of interviews, Minnesotans offer their perspectives and experiences on issues facing older Americans seeking care with dignity and respect for their individuality, cultural identity and human rights.

Comments from Cheryl Hennen

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Question: In the course of complaint investigations at the Office of Ombudsman for Long Term Care, do concerns about religious practices and sexual orientation come to your attention?

We haven’t had a whole lot of casework when it comes to nursing homes refusing to accommodate religious customs, culture, or religious practice.

As for sexual orientation, I think in the time I’ve been here I’ve heard of one case—at the Veterans Home. We had a gentleman beat up by another gentleman, because he realized he was gay. In this case, two gentlemen had entered into a really intimate relationship on their floor. That was allowed in private, and they would sit at a park bench at times, and hold hands. Another gentleman would witness this, and one day he beat one of them up very, very badly. The provider gave counsel to both parties, and the gentleman who was the perpetrator, who beat up the gentleman who was gay, was removed from the facility.

So that is a good example—I actually was impressed with the provider’s response. I haven’t heard of a lot of complaint investigations that have been done in relationship to somebody not having their right to pursue their sexual orientation in a nursing home.

Question: If a man and a woman —or a same-sex couple—want to live together in the same room and have a sexual relationship in a nursing home, is that generally permitted? How do nursing homes deal with such situations?

A nursing home can have admission policies that talk about having a person of the same sex in the room, that kind of thing. I haven’t heard anybody trying to take that on as discriminatory. Usually, if we get the case work, the families are the ones fighting such a relationship, and trying to convince their loved one that, "no, you don’t want to do that." They somehow must think mom and dad dropped their sexuality when they walked through the nursing home door.

We’ve had a number of nursing homes call and say, we have this couple that wants to be intimate all the time. And we don’t know what to do because it infringes on the rights of another person—a lot of times someone is in a double room. So now what do we do?

Question: What do they do?

Many times they try to help the parties come to an agreement—that during this time, on these days, one party will be out at an activity, and "you won’t be here, so do you mind if we have the room to ourselves?" We have had some casework where the couples want to switch rooms, so that when a room opens up, one can move in with a loved one.

Question: What kinds of complaints are most likely to be brought to the Office of Ombudsman for Long Term Care?

When you look at nursing home residents from minority communities and what comes to our attention... We have a gentleman I talked to from Ghana, and one of his major complaints is not being able to be served the food that he is accustomed to, according to his culture. There is a real lack of understanding, I believe, on the part of the provider, that this man has the right to be able to exercise his cultural beliefs, customs, etc.

What’s interesting is, many people from minority cultures are actually the caregivers in our nursing homes. I get a lot of complaint work on that, where people who are white are calling to say, "I don’t want that person providing me with care—they’re from a different country, their skin is dark, they can’t even speak English, I have no idea what they’re saying to me."

Because caregivers are of different cultural beliefs and customs, there may just be a lack of proper understanding of what each other defines as, "this is how I take good care of you." But we see a lot of that coming from residents—they get upset about who their caregivers are.

That can call into question, OK, what are a nursing home’s training requirements here? How are you providing adequate support and training for your staff, so that they can continue to provide quality care, in what sometimes can be a hostile environment from their care receivers? You can get a mish-mash of an answer to that question.

Question: Are nursing homes required to provide training in human rights and diversity issues?

You mean for nursing home staff? No. They are mandated to get vulnerable adult training, but they are not mandated to receive training related to cultural diversity. And it seems like, with where we are in this time and place in our society, that really should be mandated training, wouldn’t you say?

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