John O’Connor

Ever hear the phrase “the elephant in the room”?

If not, it’s an informal expression. It usually refers to an obvious problem or difficult situation that nobody wants to talk about or confront.

You know, the otherwise lovable aunt with the odd smell, the semi-addled uncle who gets happy fingers around the ladies, the cousin who can’t stand politicians in the “wrong” party, that sort of thing.

But it’s not just the people we know. Caring and terrific institutions can house their own troubling pachyderms.

I was raised a Catholic. And like Nancy Pelosi, I was taught that it’s wrong to hate people. Then I found out that some of the people passing along those lessons were doing unspeakable things to children. Nor did the Catholic Church launch the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition as acts of loving kindness. Still, the Church has done and continues to do wonderful things. It will always be a part of me, even on days when I don’t feel so great about the attachment.

Then there’s the sector that has given me a rewarding and wonderful career for roughly three decades: long-term care. I am constantly amazed at the caliber and commitment of the people I meet in this sector. That goes from the front lines through the C-suites.

If there is a universal in this sector, it’s this: People want to make a positive difference in the lives of those they serve.

But I have also seen that long-term care has a few of its own rogue elephants. If I were to cite the one troubling challenge that bothers me most, you might be surprised. For it’s not the scoundrels in our midst (although, to be clear, they are terrible human beings).

No, what ticks me off even more are others in the sector who have done nothing to stop them. As in zero, zip, zilch and nada. We all have reasons for the actions we take or avoid. But still.

For all the good this sector does, it has a serious policing problem. Or to be a bit more accurate, the sector has a lack of self-policing problem.

To be sure, this field has its other “elephants” as well. But this one is uniquely bad. Why? Two reasons.

First, when bad actors are allowed to continue doing what they do, the result is a lot of substandard care — or worse.

Second, the bad actions by the few are getting paid for by the many. When you talk to people who do not make a living from this sector, the reviews are, ahem, not good.

Basically, the good and decent people in this sector have decided that it’s less of a hassle to look away. Which, under the circumstances, is understandable.

But if you are going to let elephants roam your house, you’d best be prepared to clean up a big mess. Time and time again.

John O’Connor is McKnight’s editorial director.