More Than the Minimum

photo
Alice

In the name of all that is holy, how in the hell is this considered handicap accessible?! I surveyed the small space with growing despair as I quickly calculated the risk factor of several possible transfers and dismissed them all as too dangerous. The wheelchair barely fit through the door to the restroom, let alone the tiny stall. One handrail on the wrong side of the toilet and a generic handicap plaque on the door is considered acceptable accommodations for those living with a disability. How am I going to maneuver her chair through the door? Maybe she can stand outside the stall and we’ll use her walker. That won’t work. Not enough room for her to turn with the walker and I won’t be able to fit in there to help her sit on the low toilet. Besides, the only handrail is on her affected side. She won’t be able to grab it. Think, Alice, think! Don’t let her sense your frustration.
“Let’s just go home.” My heart sank as my client’s voice cut through my frenzied need to figure it out. Once again, she was reminded that she can’t just enjoy a day with her extended family. Once again, I felt a rush of anger at the unfairness of it all.
We made our way out of the restroom, carefully maneuvering around the diners in the upscale restaurant. The tables were so close together that there was no way to get through without jostling people. My client hastily bid farewell to the extended family that had made the two hour trip for the annual Christmas reunion luncheon and we made our way home.
We just made it home and to her own bathroom in time to avoid an accident and for that I was grateful. My client hates having the rare accident. It upsets her for days and would have just added to her disappointment. It would have been another blow in a day full of reminders that she is no longer able to simply enjoy a special day that so many of us would take for granted.
Three more feet and one more handrail in that bathroom stall would have made the difference. My client would have been able to celebrate being an aunt, mother, wife, and grandma on that festive occasion. Instead, she had to rush out of there, embarrassed and frustrated at her inability to perform the most basic of human functions in a public restaurant. Three more feet and one more handrail. I don’t think that’s so much to ask.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is over twenty five years old. It has gone a long way in promoting a better quality of life for those living with challenges the majority of the general population do not face. But laws and regulations do not bring with it the insight or necessity to understand those for whom the laws were put in place to protect. The regulation may require a handicap stall, so the owners slap a sign on the door and a bar on the wall and they are in compliance. Done deal. They don’t see the effort or the struggle those who need to actually use the stall go through so it doesn’t factor into the equation. They see only whether it will pass or fail an inspection.
Nothing will change until our collective view of those living with disabilities evolves. It’s not about respecting the LAWS. It’s about understanding the PEOPLE. Maybe thinking about how life looks through the eyes of someone who can’t walk or see or has simply “aged out” is uncomfortable for most people because it makes them think of their own mortality. But like it or not, we are all on the same road and the time will come when we very well may need help ourselves. Would you want to be seen as a person or a disability?
I know minds change slowly and that there really has been quite a bit of advancement in protecting and enhancing life for those living with a variety of disabilities. Still, that day in that restaurant, all I saw was how far we have to go and all I felt was my client’s disappointment and sadness. I made two promises to myself that day. One, I would write about the experience this week and two, I would make certain my client’s house was so decked out for Christmas that she would feel comfortable having family over.
She had told me that she used to love decorating for Christmas. It was her favorite season and it made her happy to put out her bird ornaments and nutcracker collection and colorful lights. For years, her husband dutifully dragged all the decorations out himself and did the best he could to keep up the tradition. As he got older, this became more difficult until finally, three years ago, the tradition just faded away. It started with skipping the tree and ended with skipping the decorations all together. She finished the sad story with a sigh of such resigned acceptance that I had to blink away tears that welled up unexpectedly.
This afternoon, my boyfriend and I headed over to her house, as promised. We spent the afternoon decorating a Christmas tree for her with her bird collection as she supervised from her lounge chair. We laughed and talked with her husband as we untangled the colorful lights and hung the ornaments. Once we had the tree decorated to my client’s satisfaction, we all sat down for dinner together. It was an afternoon filled with joy and laughter and no thoughts given to her disability.
Those are the times that matter. Those small moments when I can remind her of the joy still left to be had in life. And you know what? Those tiny solutions add up. It doesn’t have to be only caregivers or loved ones that reach out. It can be anyone. It doesn’t have to be only during the Christmas season. It can be any time. And in doing these small acts of kindness, we are gaining so much more than we give. We learn to be an active part of the solution instead of staying stuck in the problem.
I let my anger at the unsatisfactory conditions of a public restroom motivate me to ensure my client would have the Christmas she wanted and I enjoyed every moment of it. How do you make a difference? One small act of kindness at a time.

Laughing together

 

Sunflower May

In compliance with HIPAA, all names and identifying details have been altered or removed to protect patient privacy.
It’s funny that we call the oncoming shift our “relief”. Funny and yet oh-so appropriate. Right now I am so relieved that I hug the poor woman as soon as I spot her on the hall.
“Oh, crap,” she gasps. “Let me go clock out if it’s that bad!”
“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice,” I tell her. “Clearly, they’ve never been to a nursing home or they would know it’s going to end in shit.”
We just look at each other and burst into laughter. It’s not quiet either, a soft chuckle and back work. It’s the kind of laughter that has us both leaning against the wall for support.
Just our luck, the strictest of the management team happens to walk down just then. She raises her eyebrows at our “lounging” posture and we push off the wall so fast I get a bit dizzy.
“What has you both so tickled?” she asks drily.
I glance over to my relief for some moral support, then grudgingly repeat the joke.
Our hard-ass, straight-laced management person doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t even smile, she just says in the same dry tone: “Clearly. What did they feed these people last night?”
“Corn,” I say promptly. “I felt a bit like a gold panner today.”
“Gross!” exclaim both the other CNA and office person.
“Not as gross as what else was in there,” I counter.
Then, all three of us are laughing, leaning against the wall for support.
<oOo>

Sometimes it easy to get lost in the trenches. We line up on opposite sides, slap labels over the other’s face.
Housekeeper.
Cook.
Administrator.
Supervisor.
First shift CNA.
Second shift CNA.
Third shift CNA.
New CNA.
Student.
Resident.
“Those” residents.
Labels are nifty little things, handles by which grab on to something. The trouble comes when we forget to look beyond the handle to see what it is we’ve actually picked up.
Another human being. A person who laughs and cries, the same as us. A person who laughs at your exhausted attempt at humor.
At its best, laughter is the best medicine. Laughter can connect us, transcend the labels and jump the lines.
It’s really hard to give good care all by yourself in this system. Having allies by your side, someone to lighten the load, relieve you and sometimes just not punish you for a moment’s breather…those things really go a long way. Those things are what allow me to survive long enough to have those personal moments with my residents that renew my passion for this field.

Behind the Scenes

photo
Alice
My eyes scanned the unfamiliar environment, quickly assessing potential pitfalls and hidden dangers. Carpet, possible fall risk. No hand rail in the bathroom. Air conditioning vent directly over the only place at the table my client’s wheel chair can fit. No other chair in which she can safely sit. Ok. A manageable if not ideal environment. I had prepared for those obstacles. Thankfully, I thought to put the commode chair in the trunk just in case. All the bases were covered and though I left exhausted at the end of the shift, my client was able to enjoy Thanksgiving at her daughter’s house surrounded by love and family.
When I was told that her daughter wanted to host Thanksgiving dinner at their house this year, I balked inside. It was a twenty mile drive into completely unknown territory and I had no idea what would be needed to keep my client as safe and comfortable as possible. People who aren’t living with or caring for those with disabilities tend to take for granted the amount of effort and time that goes on behind the scenes. This is a truth that transcends all avenues in this field. Get it done. Handle it. Make it happen.
And we do, don’t we? How often have I thought about the impossibility of a problem as I was in the middle of doing my best to solve it. Be it in homes or in facilities, uphill battles are what we do. It’s part of our job description and we don’t falter. Personal life in shambles? Worried about bills? Car troubles? We have to leave it at the door. We don’t get the luxury of falling apart. We have people who count on us.
Today, I was strongly reminded of how much that inability to fall apart has taught me. My dad had to have emergency surgery this afternoon. He is going to be okay, but he has quite the road to recovery ahead of him. I was blind-sided by this news. We all were. My dad, who is the picture of health and stands taller and stronger than most men, both physically and mentally, hit a bump and there is absolutely nothing that I can do about it. After a night of wrestling with powerlessness and fear, I woke up this morning, put on my scrubs and went to work. I don’t have the luxury to fall apart and because of that, by the simple effort of putting one foot in front of the other, I was able to regain perspective.
It isn’t a good situation but it could have been so much worse. I am powerless over his pain, but I am capable of being supportive to both him and those around him. I can offer information about self-care and I have insight that will benefit my family. All of this comes from lessons I’ve learned from the field and the unseen efforts that go on behind the scenes of what we do. Our job teaches us courage. At times, it outright demands it.
Management, regulatory agencies, even the families of those in our care are only interested in the end results; the appearance. If everything looks ok it is ok. If everything looks easy, it is easy. We caregivers know better. We are behind the scenes people, the muscle behind the movement and the heart behind the smile. What I have learned in the simple act of trying to do my best in this field has enriched my life in ways that defy reason. I didn’t want to go to work today. I wanted to hide from the world, but I went anyway. I didn’t want to write this post. I didn’t want to express my fear and vulnerability, but I wrote it anyway. That’s what we do. We tackle the task at hand and keep moving. We do not shrink from adversity and that is what makes all the difference in life.

Empathy vs Apathy

Sunflower  May

In compliance with HIPAA, all names and identifying details have been altered or removed to protect patient privacy.

Can I ask you something?” a newbie CNA asks me…in that tone of voice that usually means “Trouble this way”. We’re assisting Mrs. A to eat her lunch, although “assist” doesn’t quite seem like the right word when all she can do on her own is open her mouth. 

“Um,” I say, “sure.”

“That one aide. Why is she like this? How do you get to point where you just don’t care? Why does she act like giving these people your very best is a waste of time?”

“Well,” I sigh. “There’s a lot of stress that goes with being a CNA, and a lot of the time you don’t seem to be making a difference…”

He picks up the spoon, loads it up with mashed potatoes and gently gives it to Mrs. A. “There,” he says, “I just made a hell of a lot of difference for her.”

I almost come out of my seat. “Promise me you’ll stick with this,” I say fervently. “You’re right. Every little bit we do makes the world of difference…but sometimes it’s hard to remember that when you’re frustrated, over-worked and, well, when nobody else sees the good you do. And for that one aide, well, sometimes it’s easier to shut off the part of you that can feel, to spare you from feeling despair. Some aides learn how not to care to survive this broken system ”

“You didn’t,” he says indignantly. “I won’t.”

“Remember that promise,” I say gently, “but also remember this: deciding to be a good aide is not a battle you will ever leave behind you. It’s a choice you will have to keep making every single shift, to do your best even when it seems pointless, to keep being kind even when your efforts seem as terminal as your resident.”

“Is that what makes a bad aide then?” He asks. “Deciding that your best isn’t required? Choosing apathy over empathy?”

∞oOo∞

What is the good of small acts of kindness done for a person who will shortly be dead? Isn’t it a waste of time and talent? Isn’t your struggle to be kind as terminal as the disease killing your resident? One day soon, your resident will lie cold in a bed and there will be nobody left to remember how you put off your break so you could fluff her pillow. Nobody saw you give a good bed bath to Mr. T instead of just running a wet wash cloth over him. So what’s the point of trying? Why put yourself through the agony of giving good care in a system that is not set up for small acts of compassion?

Nobody wants to admit to having these feelings. Who wants to stand up and proclaim to the world that you wonder if somebody’s grandparent was worth the effort?
So instead of acknowledging these doubts, you repress them. You decide that you’re going to be a good caregiver, not like those bad ones who seem to act only on your worst thoughts. So you take your doubts and you shove them down, bury them deep, you say that you’ll never be like those CNAs…but idealism and good intentions will only carry you so far. Eventually, you will reach the place where everything exists in extremes and to feel at all is to be in pain. In that place, it easier to just shut it off, to distance yourself from that which causes you pain.
In this case, what causes you pain is the same thing that causes you doubts.
How do you handle the stress of constantly never being good enough? When you are constantly given more work than you can do and when you see your residents suffering because of it…what can you do?
Becoming a jaded CNA is not a single decision you make; there’s no switch you flip between “good CNA” and “bad CNA”. It is instead a series of small compromises. It’s slowly learning how to shut off the connection between you and the resident, until that resident seems more like work than a person. It’s getting to the place where your worst thoughts are the only ones you can hear. That’s when you become the thing you swore to never be.
This is how you surrender your compassion…because it hurt too much to care. Empathy hurts and apathy is appealing.
So, to all new CNAs, don’t go in blind. Being a CNA is like holding your heart to a cheese-grater. To feel is to feel pain. You will doubt whether you’re actually doing any good, and any difference you make will seem to die with your resident.
When these doubts came, face them. Look them straight in the eye and do not despair.
Doubts do not define you; a feeling that came over you during the struggle does not make you a bad person. But a feeling you buried deep in the bedrock of your soul, left to fester until it poisoned all the feelings that came after it…that one might, in ways you never expected. Sometimes, they chain you in such a way that you will never get free. The only way to break the chains is to acknowledge that they are there.
Remember that empathy hurts, but apathy doesn’t…because apathy means you don’t feel anything. Not pain and not joy. You can’t have one without the other, not in life and especially not in Long-Term Care.

And most of all, do not forget the other person in the room. Never forget the silent observer to the tiny acts of compassion, to all the sacrifices and struggles to carve out room for good care.
Do not forget yourself. 

Happy Thanksgiving

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Alice
We all know about the many obstacles in this field. We cover these topics quite a bit on CNA edge because they’re important to acknowledge. No problem was ever solved without first bringing them to light. But I don’t want to talk about that today.
We did it! Three very important words in our work. Whether it’s spoken between co-workers after surviving an impossible shift, with a resident who finally agreed to a shower after a week of failed attempts, or a client who refuses to give up her monthly beauty treatments at the mall despite the many challenges her physical condition may present, those three words have the power to renew a commitment to persevere through obstacles on the clock and off. For me, they inspire a depth of hope that I would never have known had I not landed in this field so many years ago.
The challenges we face as caregivers can be difficult to articulate to those outside the field. For me, this causes a deep loneliness on occasion. It takes an incredible amount of physical, emotional and mental energy to do our job properly.The losses take a personal toll, regardless of whether or not we admit it to ourselves. So yes, some days produce the perfect storm of loneliness when I don’t practice self-care. But I don’t want to talk about that today, either.
“He was more talkative and happy in the last two months of his life than he had been in the last two years. I don’t know what you girls did, but my family and I will be forever grateful.” …I remember that moment with crystal clear clarity. It was four years ago around Thanksgiving. One of my residents had succumbed to a long illness. We knew it was coming, but it still seemed so…sudden. I remember feeling his death so deeply that for awhile, everything seemed tinged with grey and my passion for the job was replaced with a feeling of powerlessness over doing much good in it. After all, my best effort can’t stack up against death. Those kind and genuine words from his daughter acted like a balm, soothing my bruised heart with a timely reminder of the value in our work, not just for our residents, but for their families too. It isn’t about stopping death. It’s about improving the quality of life. It’s about being a comfort when another is in pain, not ending the pain itself. It’s about walking with others, come what may.
There is much to lament and much for which to be thankful in the life of a caregiver. Today, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I am filled with gratitude. Instead of focusing on the loss of people I grow to love, I feel the joy of walking with them through the end of their journey. Instead of griping about long hours, I will hold onto the feeling of satisfaction that comes from pushing through and the knowledge that any frustration or pain that I may feel is but a drop in the bucket to the daily struggles those who have been in my care face everyday with grace and humor. I will treasure the trust they place in me, the hope that they share and the dignity they are able to maintain in undignified situations. Today, I will hold close the solidarity I feel with my fellow caregivers and I will learn from those who walk this path with me and I will not take my life for granted. A very Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. I hope your day will be rich with blessings and your hearts have the wisdom to recognize them. May you feel the joy that is present, in the here and now more than you feel the pain of the past or the fear of the future, if only for the day. That is the greatest gift that we, as caregivers, are granted.

At the feet of the elders

Sunflower  May

I am upset. I am not having a good day. I can’t even remember what started it: something bad in my personal life that has snowballed, absorbing my every frustration about this broken system. There’s never a lack of frustration within Long-Term Care…which either makes it a great channel for all your passions, or the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Right now I am broken.
I’m behind, smashed straight into the grimy floor by all the work I’m expected to do. On top of that, everyone is call-light happy, wanting things done for them, needing to go to the bathroom for the seventh time this shift. I’m not able to get to the quiet ones for all the chaos and noise.
Mrs. K is the one I’m with right now. She’s a mess today, confused and not content with the answers I’m able to give her.
“Why am I here?” she asks me again. “I don’t need to pee!”
“I told you,” I say through tightly gritted teeth, “I haven’t been able to get to you all day. I need to check you before I go home.” It’s pretty obvious that I haven’t changed her all shift and that she’s going to need more than just checking.
The pants are wet. Wonderful. Just freaking great. The shoe laces have a knot and I can’t get them off. I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes and I can’t even wipe them away, not with my gloves on. Can you recall a tear through sheer force of will-power?
Nope, there it goes: straight down my cheek to splash against her leg. It’s like that tear broke the dam. Great sobs burst from me; I lay my head down on the closest thing and proceed to cry my heart out.
A soft hand runs through my hair, gently pushing it out of my face. I realize that I’m still kneeling in front of Mrs K, resting my head on her knee like a little child seeking comfort…comfort she is giving me.
“There, there,” she tells me, “you just let it out.
.

There’s many things they never tell you about Long-Term Care. They don’t tell you how painful it will be, how stress breaks your heart. But they also don’t tell you about this bit, the little shards of kindness and wisdom that can stab your soul. They don’t tell you about the renewing power of sharing grief. They don’t tell of how much wisdom you can gain by becoming so close to those who are near the end of life’s journey.
This is my peace, the balm of my soul. This is my joy and I will not let anything snatch it away, not this broken system, not fear and not burnout. She is losing her mind and I am breaking my heart…but this moment is ours. We’re here for each other.

 

Life Lessons

photo
Alice

“Oh! I’m so sorry!”, I said to the woman behind me in line at the food court. I accidentally whacked her with my client’s folded up walker as I switched it to my other shoulder. She looked at me with pity, completely unaware of the fact that I was celebrating a personal victory.
I wasn’t certain how my first shift after this election was going to be. The result left a wound in me that seems to be incomprehensible to those who voted for our new president elect. They don’t understand that for many of us, it’s not about the man as much as it’s about what we are willing to overlook or embrace as a nation in the name of “ending corruption”. It’s the ideology that’s so painful.
Be that as it may, I had a job to do and doing it well matters a great deal to me. Still, it would be a real test. Do I love the family in my care more than I despise and fear their ideology? In this environment, would I be able to detach from my own deeply held convictions for twelve hours of non-stop coverage followed by commentary by my client and her husband? I honestly didn’t know and, for the first time in a long time, I dreaded going into work.
I took a deep breath as I stepped through the door and immediately felt a shift in my thinking. Without any effort on my part, the caregiver in me rose up and took over. Outside that house, I’m Alice, free to feel and do whatever I see fit whenever I see fit, but once I stepped through that door, I had job to do and I knew in that moment that it was well within my power to do it.
As I assisted with ADLS, prepared meds and breakfast, I listened to my client chatter happily about the election results. To my COMPLETE surprise, in that moment, I found myself grateful, not for the current state of the nation, but for a moment of genuine excitement for my client. I was happy to hear the hope in her voice without agreeing with the reasoning behind it. I was able to put that in perspective because her being happy in that moment was more important than me being right. That didn’t mean I had to sit in that house and listen to it, though.
I needed a win. I desperately needed to feel like good could be accomplished in the face of all the chaos that has taken over this country… the chaos that had taken over my mind and heart. I needed a win and my client needed an adventure. We were going to Belks! Not just any Belks, either. The big one in the mall all the way across town, where she could get her hair done before she browsed the store.
Now, this was a big undertaking. It takes about an hour and a half to gather all the necessary paraphernalia and requires several tricky transfers. From the wheelchair to the car, to the wheelchair again and then to the salon chair, hair washing chair, back to the salon chair, back to the wheelchair, back to the car and finally back to her wheelchair at the end. It means that I am carrying a walker, tote bag with emergency supplies, her purse and my purse as I push her through the mall. It is every bit as exhausting as it is gratifying for both of us. That day, it was completely worth the effort, maybe more for me than for her.
That day came with a lesson that I hope to always hold close. The best way I know to protest the unacceptable is to not allow it to rob me of who I am; to apply the very same ideals that make this election result so difficult to swallow in every walk of my life, even when it’s difficult. I’m a caregiver first. I do not get to choose who is placed in my care. I do not get to dictate their opinions. However,I do get to hold on to my own and use them to motivate me to do my utmost best for them, regardless of the circumstances. I can lead by example and hold tight to the belief that, in the end, love always wins. While I’ll admit that is far less satisfying then ranting in the comment sections of news articles, I like to think in the long term, it will be more effective.

Respect Your Elders

Sunflower May

At times, it’s really hard to be professional. No, strike that––sometimes it’s really hard to be nice. This is one of those times I really wish I could just open my mouth and…well.
Breathe. Breathe and move on. Do not respond. Do not reply. This is neither the place nor the time for such a discussion. You aren’t calm enough not to scream, so don’t say anything. Prove him wrong with your actions. I keep thinking these words until I wonder if they’ve been seared onto the inside of my eyelids from the sheer force of repetition. It’s hard because I have to be professional and they can be whatever they want to, even if that’s unkind.

All this started because Mrs. L’s husband had come over for a visit. And he is a man with Opinions. He’s not one to keep them to himself either…and I could perhaps forgive him his outspokenness if I wasn’t the target of his outrage. Or I should say, one of the targets. Today, Mr. L has Opinions about Millennials.
“Man, kid these days,” he rants to his wife, ignoring me as I labor to make her bed behind him. “What idiots. When we were kids, man, I tell you, nobody was so selfish. They just want everything handed to them. Afraid of hard work, that’s what they are.”
I’m putting the pillowcase on as he says these words and I am so tempted to…no. Absolutely not, May, that is utterly unacceptable behavior. You are not allowed to even think that. Never mind that I’ve been hard at work for five hours already today, with seven more to go. Never mind that I’m in overtime for the umpteenth week in a row. Never mind that I haven’t had a break or a breather since I clocked in. Never mind…
“What is this world coming to?” he muses. “These kids are crazy and they don’t know nothing. Everything wrong in this world is because of them, I think. When we were young, we were taught to respect our elders, but I wouldn’t trust a dog with these so-called Millennials. What a disgrace––”
I can’t take this anymore. I dart around Mr. and Mrs. L, leaving the bed half-made and escape into the hallway.
No, he didn’t trust a dog to a Millennial. It was his wife he entrusted to my care. Many of the CNAs and nurses I work with are among the Millennial generation and we are the front-line of Long-Term Care. We make up a large percentage direct care workers.
I lean back against the wall, fighting tears. They’re tears of rage, but I really can’t afford to shed them right now. I am the caregiver and this isn’t the time to be emotional.

One day, I might have Mr. L or someone like him as my resident. His dignity will be left in my care, to either affirm and defend, or ignore and abuse. I wonder if he realizes that, as he rants and raves about the sins of my generation.
When you are weak and helpless, crippled and confused, I will be there, I think. And when you are my resident, then maybe you will see. Maybe you won’t…but either way,
I will take damn good care of you, whether you want me to or not. I will be your advocate and I will be your caregiver. I will fight as hard for your dignity as I fight for the gentleman down the hall, who I absolutely adore. You cannot change my compassion and you cannot change my professionalism.

I am a caregiver. I am a Millennial. And I think I am calm enough to go back into that room to finish making the bed.
When I do, it’s to see the strangest scene. Mr and Mrs L are glaring at each other; he looks surprised and she looks angry. They break it off when they realize I’m back.
“Oh, hello, sweetie,” Mrs. L says to me. “Do you know, you are my favorite aide. I don’t know how you do all the work you do. Especially,” she adds with a pointed look at her husband, “since you’re so young.”

For Veterans Day

DSC00999

 

Yang

The only time I ever saw my father cry was on Christmas Eve, 1993. On that night, my wife and I invited my parents to go with us to a candlelight service at our church. Toward the end, we lit our candles and sang the final song of the service.  About half way through, I could see the flame on my father’s candle flicker and wave in his trembling hand. His voice cracked as he raised a sleeve to his face to wipe away a tear and he was unable to finish singing. The song was Silent Night. While his reaction was out of character, I had a pretty good idea of what was behind it.

My father was a WWII vet and served with the U.S. Army Air Corp in the Pacific Theatre. He participated in campaigns in New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa before joining the occupation forces after Japan surrendered in September, 1945. As typical of males of his generation, he was somewhat “hard boiled,” tough and not given to displays of sloppy sentimentalism.  Yet, he was affable and charming, and used his gentle sense of humor to make connections with people of all kinds. He was a natural salesman and had a knack of making instant friends with strangers. He loved kids and animals, but had little tolerance for pretentiousness and superficiality in adults.

For over 35 years, I observed this same kind of tough/gentle combination in the personalities of many of the residents at the veteran’s home where I worked as a caregiver. I think there is something about serving your country in wartime that sharpens your appreciation for what really counts in life. It’s difficult for those of us who did not serve to fully comprehend this perspective.

For many of the vets I cared for, the Second World War was the seminal event of their lives and helped define who they became as people. The average age of the U.S. soldier in WWII was 26, the draft age 18. At an age that these young men should have been starting work and families, or going off to college, they instead found themselves far away from home in harsh, lonely, and dangerous places. Unlike the other major combatants in WWII, the U.S. did not rotate troops. If you served overseas in WWII, you stayed overseas for the duration of the war. It’s not hard to believe that extended periods in this kind of environment must have profoundly shaped the lives of these young men in ways that heavily influenced their later life experience. And the wounds they suffered were not always visible.

My father enlisted in December of 1942 at age 19. He was sent to the Pacific in August, 1943 and did not return home until November of 1945. I grew up hearing stories about his time overseas. There were stories of the GI’s relationship with the local natives, the oppressive heat and humidity of the New Guinea jungle, the bugs, the snakes, the dysentery, waiting days on end aboard “that damn LST” before landing on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, of watching P-38’s dogfight with Zeros over Port Moresby, and of befriending Japanese children during his time at Tachikawa Airbase after the surrender. The kids were always the first to come out of hiding.

One story stood out above the rest. It happened on Christmas Eve, 1943. He was on New Guinea where the jungle made a cohesive front line difficult to define. He didn’t know if he would ever see home again, was unsure that he even had a future, and scared.

On that night, he and two of his buddies were assigned to deliver some kind of equipment (I don’t recall exactly what) to a location about an hour and a half walk from their camp. As they crept down the dark jungle path, they would halt every so often and listen for any indications of activity – friendly or otherwise – around them. About three-quarters of an hour into the trip, my father turned around and raised his hands, signaling to his companions to stop.

“Did you hear that?” he whispered.

They hadn’t heard anything. The three men listened in silence for a few moments, but heard nothing more, and they proceeded down the trail.

A short distance later, my father stopped again.

“You must have heard that. It sounds like something clinking.”

This time, all three men heard it. But there was something about this mysterious sound in the jungle that made them more curious than cautious. As they walked on, they began to discern musical notes. Someone was playing some kind of instrument out here in No Man’s Land.

Soon, they saw lights ahead. As they came to a clearing, my father and his buddies beheld a surreal scene, a sight that would be burned into his memory for the rest of his life: there, in the middle of the New Guinea jungle, was the Salvation Army handing out cookies and coffee to homesick soldiers.

My father simply couldn’t believe what he was seeing. But his astonishment soon gave way to a different kind of feeling. This was a tangible taste of home, something marvelously normal in this alien land. The idea that these people would volunteer to come out on this night and subject themselves to the extreme discomfort and very real dangers of this place just to bring him and his comrades a bit of home on Christmas Eve filled him with a feeling that transcended mere gratitude.  

I don’t know if my father ever told us what instruments they were playing. But he never left any doubt what song he and buddies heard as they entered the clearing. It was Silent Night.   

I’m pretty sure that there were other things about his experience in the war that my father felt just as deeply, but that he never shared with us. I did know that, as happens frequently with soldiers in war zones, he developed a very close bond with some of his buddies. And I knew that some of them didn’t make it home.

My father sacrificed his youth to serve his country. And he left a part of himself over there. Later in life, he became active in the DAV and other veterans groups. After his faith and his family, his participation and service in these organizations was the most important thing in his life.

When we take the time to recognize and thank our veterans for their sacrifice and service, it really does mean something.

 

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A New Reality

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Alice
It’s my day to post. I don’t want to write. I don’t have any words right now because I am still shell shocked from the results of the election.
This is a blog by caregivers about caregiving; about our experiences and perceptions working within a broken system. It is not based on partisan ideas or politics. I get that. Still, I have always viewed what we do through a wider lens. What am I learning and how do I apply the lessons from what we do in our work to life as a whole? I write about that often; how working in this field has enhanced my ability to connect with people from all walks of life, on and off the clock. Maybe that’s why I feel so blind-sided. Maybe that’s why I feel the need to address it here. If you, our readers, will give me the leeway to stray from our typical topics and delve a little deeper, maybe I can find the words after all.
Merriam Webster defines a caregiver as a person who provides direct care (as for children, elderly people, or the chronically ill). It’s a fairly straight forward definition. We take care of people. For me, this is who I am every bit as much as it is what I do. I don’t suppose it’s an accident that I ended up doing this for a living.
When a person is hurting, I try to ease the pain. When people are lost, I use my own experiences to show them that there is always a way out. When people are scared, I try to offer comfort. I find the reasons to laugh and when life seems dark, I whistle until it passes. It’s what I know and it was the compassion and love I was shown that pulled me from my own dark times.
I see life through stories and moments, be them my own, my friends, people for whom I’ve cared, or anyone else who has left an impact on me. I see shades of gray instead of black and white. I seek truth and solutions rather than sitting in the problem and surrounding myself with people who will validate me, but I woke up this morning unable to see past the results of this election, which I personally consider catastrophic for so many people whom I love, and my heart just breaks.
I am so sorry. I am sorry, my friends in the LGBT community. I’m sorry that you will have to walk through discrimination that was finally fading, slowly but surely. I am sorry for my friends of color and am embarrassed that the man who ran with the support of white supremacists without disavowing them in disgust is now the leader of our nation. I’m sorry to all the little girls who will be affected by the legitimizing of sexual assault and the little boys who are being shown that such thinking and behavior is just “boys being boys”. I am sorry to all of the Hispanic community who will be looked upon with suspicion simply because of their heritage. I’m sorry to Muslim Americans for being labeled as “terrorists” because of a small segment of extremists. I certainly wouldn’t want all Christians to be labeled because of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. I’m sorry for our veterans, those living with mental illness, the disabled, the elderly…I’m sorry to all the people who have been and will be in my care for what I fear is coming. I’m sorry to all who blindly voted against your own self interests out of fear. You will end up paying the price too, and I imagine it will be hardest on you because of your misplaced faith and misguided allegiance. I didn’t realize how far off the tracks of humanity we had flown.
I don’t know how to take care of people in such an atmosphere, but I don’t know how to give up either. Writing this seemed as good a place as any to start. Later, I will share my experience with a group of people in the hopes of reaching others in need of help. Tomorrow, I will go to work and do my very best to care for my client and her family, regardless of who they supported. I can care for them and love them without agreeing with them. If I couldn’t, I would be no different than the people who are responsible for the outcome of this election. I will tackle each task in my path to the best of my ability and try to lead by example and learn as I go. My residents and clients taught me that. My co-authors, Yang and May, show me that. All caregivers everywhere remind me of that. We work within impossible situations every single day and we do not flinch. That does not change because of election results.