“Oops … I sincerely apologize for accidentally coming into your room without knocking,” said this neophyte social worker to a resident at a nursing home … as 90-year-old Bill was gently kissing his 88-year-old girlfriend, Suzie, under the mistletoe that was strategically hanging over his bed in early December 1983. I had been assigned to do an initial social work assessment for Bill by my graduate social work field supervisor, Estelle, in the last month of my second-semester field placement.
Privacy—something we all cherish and respect. It is even alluded to in the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution! Yet, it is something that we may overlook many times, especially for elders in nursing homes. When someone has to live in a community setting like a group or nursing home with semi-private rooms, it can be impossible to have privacy most of the time.
Back in the early 1980s, when I was in graduate social work at SDSU with a concentration in gerontology (the study of aging) and was doing this field placement at a nursing home, I became much more aware of this privacy concern. The first semester of my field placement in the nursing home was great … learning how to better understand ways to practically apply book knowledge about gerontology to the real world of day-to-day situations; this included practical opportunities to re-direct an elder dealing with memory problems.
Well, Estelle surely provided me with some great insights and learning encounters during my first semester of field placement. I learned how to better engage with nursing home elders—sometimes those dealing with dementia—in community living situations, and how to better access community resources for their needs. In my second semester of field placement, I was eventually assigned to help with the assisted living section of the nursing home, where most of the residents were high-functioning and needed minimal help with their daily-living activities.
As I noted in the introduction to this piece, I was more worried about what I was going to say when I went to see Bill than to remember to knock on his door—a good lesson on mindfulness, living in the present, and for demonstrating better respect for our clients, especially elders.
Well, it seems that Bill, who had been widowed a few years before and had been recently diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer's dementia, had been getting more complaints lodged against him for “flirting too much”—at times with some of the lady residents of the assisted living portion of the nursing home.
In my second semester of field placement at the nursing home, I was a little nervous for that first encounter with Bill, as I had not dealt directly before with elders exhibiting those types of behaviors. Since I was the first male social work intern assigned to that nursing home, Estelle thought that Bill—who had also recently been taking medication for dementia—would respond more to me in re-directing him to appropriate behaviors on the unit. The resident council director, John, another resident of the assisted living, had previously tried privately to get Bill more in-line with proper treatment of women, but apparently to no avail.
So I began a “Men's Group” to allow the male residents to have a forum to open up to other guys about all their concerns, including loneliness and lack of companionship, as most of them were single, divorced, or widowed. Well, besides engaging the group to share about their backgrounds, families, military experiences, and sports interests, they told me about their concerns for more privacy at times … even to have a place for quiet, prayer, playing cards or board games, or just plain old privacy—maybe even for romance! Certainly, Bill shared in the group, with a few risque jokes at times, but never got unwieldy. And he made a VERY INTERESTING (like Arte Johnson used to say on Laugh-In) and practical proposal: Why can't we have a "boom-boom" room here?
So, after deliberations with my supervisor, a joint meeting with all the residents of the assisted living and nursing home—including the female residents—and even a review with the nursing home attorneys, it was agreed upon to designate a large unused storage room as a “Quiet Room,” with that name posted upon the door. This was a room that an individual adult with or without another adult could use for up to a half hour at a time—for quiet, prayer, playing cards, other—and had a sign-up sheet to be kept on the door. Most folks privately called it the “BOOM-BOOM Room"!
I'm not sure that Bill changed his ways very much after I had completed my field placement at the end December 1983—before graduating with my Master's of Social Work in May of 1984—but I had heard from Estelle that there was a significant decrease in complaints about Bill after that room was available. I also heard that it was used for many other practical purposes, including priests hearing confessions, for which Bill had quite a long resume, I'm sure (LOL!).