A friend and I recently toured a veteran's home in a midsize Minnesota town. The facility was beautifully designed and superbly run. The only thing that struck me as unusual was that I didn't notice any women.

Then I read the client roster. It showed that some female veterans and/or wives of veterans also live there, so while the abundance of mostly World War II era veterans were men, women were also part of the home's population.

About a week later, I was asked to write about gender-specific care homes. Naturally, this assignment brought to mind my thoughts about the veteran's facility. I was thoroughly impressed by the home and also felt assured that women were a part of the culture, even if my timing was slightly off when I made my mid-morning visit.

Somehow, knowing that there were both men and women living in the home had made me feel good, and the new assignment forced me to examine why that was the case.

Reasons for gender specific care homes

I began my research by asking clinical bioethicist Viki Kind for her thoughts. Viki has interviewed me on radio in the past, so I felt that turnabout was fair play. As she does from time to time, she brought up points that I hadn't considered.

"I think gender-specific long-term care facilities can be an important option for the LGBT community who unfortunately face abuse and discrimination in many facilities," Viki told me. "People deserve to feel safe in their home, including their long-term care home where they are especially vulnerable to the staff.

"I also believe that gender-specific facilities for women may be beneficial," she continued. "Research has shown that all-female colleges, such as Wellesley, are well-known for meeting the needs of women in a way that mix-gendered universities don't."

I regularly receive news releases about the LGBT segment of the aging population and the discrimination that these people experience in some care facilities. Viki, who is, after all, a clinical bioethicist, has likely worked on discrimination cases, so her opinion definitely lends weight to the need for the option of gender-specific care homes.

Anne Hays Egan, of New Ventures Consulting also feels that there are some people who may benefit from gender-specific homes.

Anne said, "It's important to identify the research about the gender-specific issues in older adults that drive the need for the creation of gender-specific Alzheimer's facilities.

"This should include the identification of the types of people for whom gender-specific care is best suited, analysis of effective practices, and a description of how those practices are being developed in model programs," Anne continued. "Whenever that type of data is available, it enables professionals and families to identify how gender-specific facilities meet different types of needs, which people adapt best to gender-specific facilities, and what families can expect from this type of care."

Choices are important

Both Viki and Anne have opportunities to work with unique elder issues. I agree that individual needs should be considered and that options should exist for those who want a gender-specific environment. As both women implied, studying available data would help providers develop models that meet community needs.

One care facility group that offers an all-women memory care unit, as well as the more traditional model of a mixed-gender unit is The Goodman Group, owners of Cypress Palms, located in Naples, Florida.

I checked with the company to ask why they had decided to use both models in their group. My contact told me that The Goodman Group saw a women-only memory care program as beneficial because women tend to live longer than men, therefore a larger number of women needed housing for memory care. "Also," she said, "some families prefer their loved ones to be in an all-women residence, as symptoms of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia can lead to lack of judgment and diminished mental capacity."

I'm not sure that having more elderly women than men signifies a need for a women-only facility for any reason other than streamlining the care process. I can, however, agree that if some women or their families prefer a women-only facility it makes sense for a company to provide this business model.

I also agree that, by definition, Alzheimer's and other types of dementia can lead to lack of judgment.

Some families may prefer the perceived safety of an all-female patient population for their impaired mother or grandmother. Because my first concern is what the elder may want, I do have to wonder if the elderly mother or grandmother is actually happier in an all-female facility than she would be in mixed company. That's a highly individual matter.

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Whether or not people have Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia, they still may benefit from the company of both genders since that more closely mirrors the pre-dementia life of most women. I do, however, understand and respect the concerns some families may have. Choices are rarely easy when it comes to dementia care.

Mixed-gender facilities more closely replicate elder's past

My train of thought about what an elderly woman may have chosen brought to mind a story a friend told me. His mother-in-law was in a nursing home, slowly declining, as is common at her advanced age. Although she once cared very much for appearances, she'd lost that interest. Or so it appeared.

Then, one day a new gentleman happened to join the group in the dining room. This woman, who hadn't cared much about her appearance for some time, suddenly wanted her hair fixed and insisted on a different outfit. In other words, a bit of her old pride of self surfaced and she wanted to impress a man.

I'm not sure that this is unusual.

Benjamin Douglas, Founder of Connect Senior Living, said it well. "Keeping nursing homes open to both genders is a great way to replicate the residents' previous living situation and their social interactions, ultimately making the facility feel like an extension of the living environment from which the resident came."

I agree with Douglas. Our elders lose so much as they age. By the time they enter a nursing home, many are struggling to maintain some sense of self. I enjoy seeing our aging loved ones retain as much as possible of the life that was familiar to them for decades. For most people, that means mixed company.

I understand without reservation that choices should be available whenever possible. Ideally, women (or men, for that matter) who prefer gender-specific facilities should have that choice. Still, for most people, I continue to believe that mixed-gender care facilities are a good idea.

Barbara Beckman, Certified Nursing Assistant at Eventide Senior Living Communities in Moorhead, Minnesota, shared this observation. "In the dining room, for whatever the reason, the mixed-gender tables are livelier than same-gender—more conversation, more smiles, more laughter. It's fun to see!"

If elders in facilities can enjoy the world as they've known it to a greater degree, unless other issues override this consideration, I like to see that happen. If this enjoyment manifests in such a way that a woman wants to wear a pretty dress to impress the attractive gentleman across the table, I take that as a positive sign. Where a spark of interest exists, I believe that spark should be recognized as a natural and important social aspect of living life to its fullest.