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Have Assisted Living Facilities Forgotten About Dads?

Ami Noss
By Ami NossJune 12, 2014

No matter what the specifics of the situation, the move from independence to assisted living can be emotionally fraught for both parents and children. Often, this stress is multiplied for children of aging single men for reasons that may surprise you. Learn more.

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Have Assisted Living Facilities Forgotten About Dads?

Seniors often feel reluctant to relinquish control over their surroundings and daily routines, and adult children may feel guilty over not being able to manage their parents’ care without help. Those not familiar with retirement home dynamics may not know that according to the National Center for Assisted Living, women outnumber men three to one in the average elder care setting. With more men moving to assisted living communities, this gender gap can make things more challenging for adult children to find a community that caters to men’s interest and will make dad happy.

In describing the scene at Irvine senior home Atria Woodbridge, Los Angeles Times reporter Rick Rojas notes,

“The ladies are everywhere… it is the ladies who fill the dining hall, the ladies who while away the afternoon chatting and doing crossword puzzles in the sitting room, and the ladies whose photos are on display next to the needlepoint and paintings in the resident art gallery.”

Columnist Pam Gerhardt of the Washington Post has referred to these imbalances as the “doilies and chintz” problem. “Every place I visited, I was overwhelmed with potpourri and teddy bears with bows,” Gerhardt lamented of her recent search for the right assisted living facility for her father.

While an excess of women might seem like an “embarrassment of riches” type issue to the untrained eye, in actuality, it can lead to men feeling excluded from the main flow of a community’s social life, overwhelmed by female attention at group events, or both. Rojas, for example, quotes one resident as saying that the women of Atria Woodbridge are actually hard to get know, since they “have a world of their own.” On the other hand, we have the example of St. Andrew Estates in Boca Raton Florida — a retirement home that resorted to hiring “older male dancing enthusiasts as well as volunteers from a local college fraternity” to staff a Valentine’s Day dance in order to keep dance cards full without overwhelming the in-house male population.

Given the intractable nature of the contributing factors to retirement home population imbalances — in a nutshell, women live longer and are less likely to insist on living alone — can senior living communities do a better job of helping men feel at home? Here are a few things that could make a difference:

  1. Use modern, gender-neutral decor: There are plenty of furnishings with broad appeal, thus Pam Gerhardt recommends that retirement homes “lose the chintz,” along with the “crystal chandeliers and fleur-de-lis wallpaper.” She recommends using earthy hues, jewel tones, as well as bold, abstract artwork in place of “pastel sunsets.”
  2. Keep staff ratios balanced: Senior living facilities should make sure that there are plenty of male staff members available to assist men with personal care. Some men may prefer to have a male attendant help them with grooming and dressing.
  3. Create social opportunities that appeal to men: From designing appealing gathering spots such as club-like game rooms replete with overstuffed leather chairs and poker tables (another of Gerhardt’s suggestions), to organizing regular card games, men’s breakfasts, woodworking clubs, and similar activities, assisted living facilities should make a concerted effort to engage male residents in community life.

At Atria Woodbridge, resident Al Ladine worked with staff to create a “Man Cave”— a workshop where seniors craft everything from clocks to model railroads and airplanes. According to Rojas, women are welcome, but the shop is “much more of a gathering place for men.” A sign bearing the words “Boys Will Be Boys” hangs on the door.

“There are too many people sitting around doing nothing,” Ladine is quoted as saying, “We’re trying to get them more active, give them a little something to look forward to each day.” In terms of getting men away from their televisions and out of their rooms, the program has been a huge success.

What kinds of things do you think assisted living communities could do to make dad feel more at home? Share your suggestions in the comments below.

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