Understanding and dealing with inappropriate sexual behavior — whether between staff and residents or between residents — is extremely important. This behavior must be dealt with quickly and in a manner that restores feelings of safety to the offended party.
Many seniors don’t report sexual harassment, and those who do are often ignored. But as administrators, it’s our legal obligation to protect residents and provide them with a safe, comfortable living environment. Let’s start by defining sexual abuse and sexual harassment.
Defining Sexual Abuse & Sexual Harassment
In general, sexual abuse tends to be physical, while sexual harassment is typically verbal. Sexual abuse is defined as touching, fondling, or any sexual activity between a caregiver and resident or two residents. Signs and symptoms of sexual abuse can include:
- Genital or urinary infection or injury
- New behaviors, such as an intense fear reaction, mistrust, and nightmares
- Regressive, aggressive, or self-destructive behaviors
Source: A Management Reference for Executive Directors, 2018, SeniorLivingU
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network), sexual harassment includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”
It’s important to understand that sexual harassment and abuse in senior living communities are different than what we hear about in workplaces or educational institutions. We’ll get into the details below.
Sexual Abuse: Staff to Resident
Your staff’s job in an assisted living facility is to help residents in their activities of daily living. This includes bathing, transferring, and toileting — all of which are very personal and private for a resident.
Depending on their cognitive state, the resident might not understand why a person they hardly know is trying to remove their clothing at bath time. In turn, they become an easy target for a staff member looking to engage in inappropriate touching or fondling.
Sexual Abuse: Resident to Resident
As your residents “age in place,” their cognitive faculties may decline, making them vulnerable to fellow seniors. These individuals can often be coerced into participating in a sexual relationship that isn’t appropriate for either party.
Please remember that sex is a normal function in human life. Humans crave and thrive on the touch of another human and the feelings associated with the act. But taking advantage of someone who doesn’t understand and expecting them to have the same feelings isn’t appropriate. Sex should only be between two adults who are cognitively equals.
Sexual Harassment: Staff to Resident
An off-color comment or suggestion made to a resident also constitutes sexual harassment. It’s important to understand that the comment doesn’t need to be directed at a specific person. If a senior overhears the comment, it qualifies as sexual harassment.
Sexual Harassment: Resident to Staff
There’s nothing more terrifying for a female personal care aide assisting a male resident at bath time than having him make a sexual suggestion to her. This can also happen to male personal care aides.
Make sure your staff are trained on how to properly respond to these comments. It’s also important to address the issue with the resident and their family to demonstrate that you will not tolerate such behavior. In turn, this helps your staff feel more secure and safe while assisting your residents.
Be Aware of the Signs of Abuse
Not all of your residents will be able to tell you when they’ve been victims of sexual abuse or harassment. That’s why you need to train your staff on the signs of sexual abuse.
We began this blog by listing physical and mental changes that can occur when we suspect a senior is being sexually abused. Sudden changes in a resident’s daily habits are often the first sign, especially in those with higher cognitive levels. Make sure your staff understands that they must report sexual abuse or harassment immediately.
How to Prevent Sexual Harassment & Abuse
There are several things you can do to prevent sexual abuse and harassment in your assisted living community. They include the following:
- Enlist an “open door” policy for staff, residents, and their families. When sexual abuse or harassment is reported, take it seriously and handle the concerns promptly.
- Provide sexual harassment/abuse prevention training for your staff. Ensuring they understand the consequences is one of the best ways to prevent sexual harassment and abuse in the future.
- Address the issues of sexual abuse and harassment at fireside chats for residents and their families. You might consider asking a sexual assault counselor to participate in the discussion.
- Make it clear that sexual abuse falls under mandatory reporting requirements as per the Older Adults Protective Services Act (OAPSA).
- Ensure you have clear policies in place that define sexual harassment and abuse and reinforce that it won’t be tolerated at your community. There should be no doubt in your staff’s and residents’ minds that you have zero tolerance for these behaviors.