The alarm clock cut through my dreams, it’s deceptively cheery jingle jarring my consciousness awake. I groaned, fighting the urge to hit the snooze button just once more. I had to go in early. No more time to snooze.
As I ran about the apartment in my pre-work routine of craziness, grabbing coffee, hunting my keys and making sure that I was wearing the same shoes on my feet, I mentally reviewed the day ahead. It was going to be an uphill battle.
Uphill battles are nothing new to me in this field. Both my experience in facilities and in private care have come with their fair share of obstacles. Not being one to shy away from adversity, more often than not I relish the challenges. It’s when I begin to view life as NOTHING but uphill battles that the trouble begins.
As a caregiver, I deal with a lot of loss. We all do. Death is inevitably part of our job. I’ve learned to view it not as a tragic necessity but as an inevitable conclusion. There is joy and peace in knowing that I have a part in making the last chapter of someone’s life as pleasant as possible, making certain that those in my care never feel alone. It is why I do what I do and that part of the gig I consider sacred.
As a woman in recovery who volunteers at a behavioral health center, I deal with a lot of loss as well. That kind of loss is different somehow. That kind of loss comes with a sort of survivors guilt that makes me choke on my own powerlessness. Why do I get this when others don’t? What could I have said or done differently that may have prevented another’s death or insanity or consequences? The answer is nothing. I can’t force a moment of clarity on another person. I can only share my experience.
I tell you guys this because I know we all have our baggage and we work in a field that can skew our perspective. Because I have to be vigilant, I recognize that change as it’s happening. When I start obsessing over the two people I was unable to help rather than the ten that I was, I know I need to check myself.
I cashed in all my “give up” chips years ago. Now as long as there is a breath in me, I will…I MUST keep moving forward. There is so much I want to do in life; so many people I want to reach and help. My fellow caregivers, my residents, anyone and everyone who feels lost and alone…we all have those shared experiences. I was given a second chance. I do not have the luxury of wasting it.
As a caregiver, I have the privilege of seeing the face of courage every shift. People who have survived cataclysmic and life changing events. People living with dementia, addiction, AIDS, strokes, PTSD, cerebral palsy; people of all ages and I SEE them…the very essence of who they are as individuals shine through their disorders. Their personalities, sometimes difficult personalities, may have been informed by their challenges but they are not defined by them. They laugh and cry and occasionally rage but they face their uphill battles every single day. They have no choice. Neither do I.
My keys were in hand, the same shoes were on my feet, my lid was tightly on my coffee cup and I was ready to face the day. I took a deep breath as I opened the door into the bright sunshine and reminded myself that it was uphill battles that made me who I am today. For that I am incredibly grateful.
Life is funny, sometimes. And it’s strange, always it is strange.
For almost three years, I have been writing for CNA Edge. Three years…it hardly seems possible. I must be getting older, because it feels like just yesterday that I was writing my very first post for this blog (Perception, now found in CNA Edge: Reflections from Year One).
But three years have passed, three wild and crazy years. Life marches on, bringing new responsibilities and opportunities. Just to be clear, I’m not leaving CNA Edge for good. I’m just stepping down to part-time contributor. Instead of once a week, I’ll be writing once a month. I’ve learned so much about the world and myself here on this blog; become a better writer and caregiver because of CNA Edge. Now it is time for me to take the lessons I’ve learned and apply them to new challenges.
Long-term care is a crazy corner of a strange world. We form deep bonds quickly with our residents and with our fellow caregivers. We have to: there’s too much work to do and too much stress to bear on our own. The relationships we form lighten the load, making it possible to bear. Not easy…but possible. Something we can struggle through, together.
The human cost of our long-term care system is something that is not counted enough. When it’s easy to justify making a profit off broken backs and burned-out hearts, you know there’s something screwy in the system. Something broken.
If I am proud of one thing I’ve accomplished in these last three years, I’m proud that I helped to empower other CNAs. My words and my stories touched people, helping them remember that they are not alone. Maybe I’ve helped to alter the perception of CNAs…that we aren’t poor, uneducated ass-wipers who can’t do any better than a crappy job. That many of us are intelligent, compassionate and hard-working people, just trying to do our best in a system that is set up against good care. We caregivers fight the clock every shift, just trying to give good care that we can be proud of…and trying to do it in five-minute windows. Drive by care, that’s what we’re forced to give. And it hurts us, to have to offer scraps and band-aids.
For so long, CNAs had no recourse but to swallow the hurt. Not anymore.
We’ve always had thoughts and feelings, voices and stories. Now, we have platforms to speak them from, safe spaces to tell our stories.
And CNA Edge has been so good to me, giving me that platform to write down and share my stories. Carving out time for good care is hard, but it’s easier now, knowing that change is possible. Knowing that there are those among management and policy-makers who do care, and try to implement lessons they’ve taken from my stories. Knowing that there are other CNAs who, like me, process feelings through writing stories.
I’m so grateful to CNA Edge, to Yang and Alice and the friendship we’ve forged here on the Internet.
Guys, you are the best and even though I’m stepping back, just know that I’m not leaving. I’ll still be here for you, even as I embrace new roles and opportunities.
To all my readers, thank you so much for all the likes, shares, comments and support. Your loyalty and support mean so much to me.
Underneath our scrubs beat hearts that celebrate each success and bleed for each loss of those within our care. We know that our time with them is limited and we can not cure them. We can’t turn back the hands of time and we can’t change the situation that led them to our care. But we walk with them. We do what we can to improve their quality of life. We tell them they are not alone. We try to coax smiles from weathered faces worn down by time and experience. We listen. We translate. And when they pass, we grieve.
Underneath our scrubs are muscles that ache from running up and down halls or up and down stairs as we do the work of three people because of short staffing. Sweat runs down our face as we prioritize needs on the spot in order to provide the best care we can in an imperfect situation. Carefully compartmentalizing the very real frustration that comes from being overworked and underpaid; constantly facing impossible situations and feeling unappreciated, as if what we do is of little value. As if we are disposable. And isn’t that how those in our care feel? Invisible? Overlooked? So we run harder. Try harder. Uphill battles become our bread and butter.
Underneath our scrubs are souls of true grit. Whatever we look like, whether we wear it on the inside or out, we do not give up. Caregiving does not stop for holidays or inclement weather. It is not nice and neat. The most important and necessary tasks fall between the lists of activities of daily living. We face our own mortality every single shift. We face worst case scenarios and see the people beneath; see the strength and courage of those living through them and their strength fuels our own.
Underneath our scrubs, we are tired. We are weary. We are disgusted with the poor pay and misunderstanding of what we do and why we do it. We are tired of being dismissed. Tired of those in our care being misunderstood and dismissed. Tired of “it looks good on paper” mentalities and tired of people with little experience on the floor and no real world knowledge of those in our care deciding what is best for them without our input. We deserve better. Our residents certainly deserve better. And until we get better, we will be relentless and consistent in speaking our truths.
Last week, the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI), the leading expert on the nation’s direct care force, launched a two-year online public education effort called “60 Caregiver Issues.” Over the next two years, the campaign will identify 60 policy and practice ideas that can begin to address a problem that we, as CNAs, are all too familiar with: the growing shortage in direct care workers.
The first installment, “8 Signs the Shortage in Paid Caregivers is Getting Worse” can be found here.
The purpose of the campaign is to focus public attention on the problem and offer some real solutions. CNAs have a vital role to play in this effort. No one has greater awareness than we do of how chronic understaffing and turnover rates actually impact the care and well-being of individual residents on a day to day basis. We know what it looks like and we know what it feels like to our residents in a very real way. By sharing our real-life work experiences we can offer a perspective that gives these problems texture and a real sense of the human cost.
As advocates for our residents – and for ourselves – CNAs can become part of the solution by joining and supporting PHI in this effort. In the coming months, CNA Edge will share posts from the PHI campaign and, of course, we will offer our own take on the issues surrounding the nation’s caregiver shortage.
To kick off the campaign, PHI offers this 60 second video which highlights the problem: Caregiving Crisis: 5 Million Workers Needed
“She needs to do better about taking care of her gums. You need to help her with that. And make sure she uses an electric toothbrush.”…My growing anger at this woman, whom I had to assume had advanced degrees in order to be a dentist, drowned out the rest of what she said. I had spent the last half hour listening to her lecture my client through me, as if she was completely unaware that the woman was an adult with a fully functional mind of her own. Does this dentist think that because she is in a wheelchair, my client is incapable of following simple instructions?
First, I had to battle the rush of misplaced guilt. My client has a very lengthy oral care routine that she does twice a day. It is one of the tasks that brings her comfort. I assist her as needed, but I am a firm believer in fostering independence. Second, she HATES the electric toothbrush. Third, it would take more than mildly tender gums for me to rob a woman who is in her right mind of her dignity by insisting that I do for her what she is capable of accomplishing for herself. Fourth, if a professional in the medical field cannot direct their questions to their patient simply because she is in a wheelchair, then they need to go back to school and learn the basics of human decency. I caught a good case of the mads over that day. After an entire shift of inner fuming, I realized that my frustration served no purpose and I would have to get glad in the same pants I got mad in. So when I got home, I reflected on the experience.
I think what irritates me the most about it was that it was not a unique situation. It is as if a person reaches a certain age or level of disability and suddenly they speak a different language. Administrators from my work in the facilities would talk through the caregivers to the residents all the time. Doctors, family members, friends, all well meaning but cluelessly communicating AT those living with a disability or the elderly in our care without pausing to include them. How can you ever feel comfortable when almost everyone talks at or around you? How invisible and irrelevant would you feel? I would be constantly screaming inside.
I KNOW this. It’s not an awareness that I had to learn. For whatever reason, that part of the gig comes very naturally to me. For others, they gain it on the floor or through one on one care. I have yet to meet a caregiver that doesn’t on some level feel the frustration that comes from people not listening to the voices of those within their care; from the utter lack of understanding and misconceptions that those, and often those in authority, seem to have for those whose very lives are in their hands.
Getting angry is not the way to solve a problem. Becoming aware is the key. So I put aside my anger at the dentist and really thought about how that interaction played into the big picture. When I took into account that most people are well meaning and such thoughtlessness is not done with malice, my mind kept circling around the idea of a foreign language. They simply don’t speak the language of the elderly or the disabled. We do. If I accept that as fact, then the next logical step is to realize that one of the most important roles in our work is to be translators.
After you read this, close your eyes for a moment. Imagine the most painful moment of your life, your biggest fears or parts of yourself about which you may carry embarrassment or shame. Think about your deepest insecurities and the way you secretly fear people may think of you. We all have those dark places. I’m asking you to find yours for a moment and feel the emotions that come from that…now imagine if everyone was able to see all of those wounds all the time…imagine if some people ONLY saw those wounds. Now ask yourself, how would YOU want to be seen? How would you want to be treated? As caregivers, we see beneath the service. As translators, we must teach others how to do the same.
In reaction to the Trump administration’s recent immigration ban, Lori Porter, founder and CEO of the National Association of Health Care Assistants, pointed out a connection between the immigration issue and LTC staffing levels. In a recent Facebook post, she stated:
“A large percentage of CNAs are from the banned countries. Long Term Care is always testifying before congress for immigration to solve their staffing issue… I know nursing homes in this country who are largely staffed by those affected. Did anyone stop to think about who would care for the residents? Especially in a country who will not come out in sufficient numbers to take care of their own OLD citizens! … I have heard from nursing homes all day who will not have enough CNAs to staff their building because so many CNAs have left out of fear.”
In support of Lori Porter’s assessment, we do know two facts: that over 50 percent of CNAs leave their jobs every year (PHI Factsheet) and over 20 percent of caregivers in the U.S. were not born in this country (Market Watch).
My concerned is about the vulnerability of caregivers coming into this country on work visas, especially if their legal status is tied to their employment. Since advocating for our elders is such a big part of what we do as caregivers, we need workers who feel secure enough to speak out within the facility and, when appropriate, in the public forum. Sometimes, we are the last line of defense for our residents and if we do not speak, no one will. Too often, incidents and issues that should be dealt with in the open are swept under the rug, mainly out of fear of some form of retaliation.
If Long Term Care is to rely on immigration to solve the caregiver shortage in this country, what kind of protections can we provide these workers so that they feel secure enough to speak out and advocate for our elders when necessary?
Ah the tricks of the trade. The little tips that I have picked up over the years in this field have made such a big difference. I can change a brief without taking off a client’s pants in no time flat; up through one pants leg, down and around the shoe and back up again. Whether it is selling the idea of a shower to a resistant client, coaxing and encouraging a resident to eat, or redirecting a person living with Alzheimer’s, somewhere along the way these little tasks have become muscle memory, as familiar and comfortable as my favorite well worn scrub top. I was reflecting on that recently, how what was once so foreign has become second nature to me and I realized that what I did was learn a language. There may be any number of dialects, but in the end it is in one tongue.
My ultimate goal, regardless of where I may work, is to meet the needs and improve the quality of life for those in my care. That is the overarching ideal for which we caregivers strive. It’s one simple concept but it is very individualized and it’s success is based on knowing our residents and growing our understanding of what makes them tick. It is the language of empathy.
My client was having a rough day. She slept well and all her pain pills from the night before are still there, so I know her pain level was not the trouble. Her blood sugar was normal. Still, her appetite was down, and she wasn’t interested in going out. She wasn’t engaged. After a year of working with her, I knew that she would open up if I could just make her laugh. She has a fantastic sense of humor and that is one of the most effective tools to open the doors to communication with this particular client.
This resident feels safe on the porch. This resident prefers showers in the afternoon. This client loves enthusiasm. This client takes a while to open up because the woman who cared for her for five years moved and she is feeling uncertain. It’s the language of knowing, the language of patience and perseverance and consistency. Because I’ve had to learn these traits in order to do my job effectively, I find that I am more capable of applying them into my daily life off the clock. Because I want to maintain my ability to grow as a person and learn from my work, I have to honestly take stock of myself on a regular basis. The language of caregiving is universal, challenging and transcendental. The skills I have learned on the floor have impacted my life, relationships with others, and perspective deeply. I truly hope that never changes because I find it valuable beyond measure.
As I talk about CNA Edge more, there’s a question that keeps coming up: for whom am I writing? What is my target audience?
Whenever I’m asked, my initial reaction is always: “My audience is whoever reads it”.
But that’s a vague answer at best, and no answer at worst. There are some who tell me I should focus more on reaching policy-makers and people in positions of power. And I can follow their line of thinking and I agree with their points: there is a divide between direct care workers and those at the top. That divide hurts our residents, often badly. So yes, I would love to reach more policy-makers.
But not at the expense of also my reaching my fellow CNAs. To put it another way, I do not want to be the sole spokesperson for CNAs to policy-makers and administrators.
Policies can change. Rules and regulations can be changed with administrations, and then swept away with the next changing wind of politics. I am not dismissing the importance of good policies and those who work so hard to affect change for long-term care. We need people fighting for good policies, and for responsible leadership. We also need people fighting to change the way CNAs think about themselves, to throw off the label of “nothing but an ass-wiper”. If I can do that, then I am not alone. One or even three CNAs speaking up can be ignored. We could even be silenced. How about one hundred CNAs? Or three hundred? How about a thousand, or a million?
That starts by letting CNAs everywhere know that they are not alone. Sometimes I think the worst affect of this broken system is that it makes people who work so closely with others feel utterly alone. We, who have the power to deeply impact the lives of our resident, are often made to feel helpless by all that we cannot change. We feel alone, helpless and burnt out. Silence and sullenness can and do follow.
But together and aloud…what can’t we achieve?
I do not ever want to talk over the heads of my fellow caregivers. I refuse to fall into the trap of thinking that I am somehow more than they are, or that they are something less than me. If I am intelligent, compassionate and eloquent, that does not make me unique among caregivers. Actually, I’d argue that makes me about average. If I stand out, it’s only because I speak out.
What we need now is change, both on a personal level and on a larger cultural one. Compassion, common sense, communication and critical thinking have got to be infused into this broken system. We have to have people dedicated to change on every rung of the ladder…including the one belonging to CNAs.
Just like a democracy cannot function without the active participation of ordinary citizens, neither can our long-term care system function without a principled and vocal base of direct care workers. CNAs who are willing and able to speak up for themselves and their residents.
I was hurting. It wasn’t the only emotion I was feeling or even the strongest but it was there, nagging at me; an annoyingly persistent hangnail in my soul, taunting me in the back of my mind. The weather wasn’t helping with its clouds heavy with unspilled rain lingering above as I drove the ten miles to what promised to be a long shift full of me biting my tongue through twelve hours of political discussion.
I’m not sure why everything decided to crash in on me this morning. Sure, I have had a long tumultuous stretch in my life, but the good has far outweighed the bad and the opportunities abounded in ways that I never saw coming. Still, emotions don’t always work in logical ways and I just felt so…tired. So uncertain of everything.
Leave it at the door, Alice. It wouldn’t do to simply plaster a smile on my face, keep an upbeat tone of voice. No. What I have discovered throughout my years in this field is that what those within my care lack in physical ability they make up for in emotional awareness. This has especially been true in private care, where we spend so much time together one on one. I can’t just fake it. My client would call me on it. I took a deep breath before I unlocked the door and made a silent list of all I had in my life for which to be grateful and got to work.
I thought I was doing well. I really did. I honestly believed that I had worked my way through that vague nagging malaise that invaded my spirit this morning. Blood sugar. Morning meds. Breakfast. Wash-up. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. My mind unconsciously chanted as my hands moved by muscle memory.
“What’s wrong, Alice?”, the words cut through my repetitive thoughts. To my shock and horror, I felt tears well up in my eyes.
“Nothing. Everything. I can’t really tell at the moment.”, I answered honestly.
“Oh. I have days like that.”, my client replied. And suddenly I felt a little better. Suddenly I felt less alone with my troubles and I was able to regroup.
We caregivers have to compartmentalize so much. It’s just part of the gig. Our client’s and residents have so much to deal with we never want to add to their troubles by carrying our own into the work place. Leave it at the door. It’s hard for me to shut that off sometimes; that dissection of my own emotions in order to function better for those around me…that minimization of my own concerns.
It’s been a process for me to learn how and when to let down those walls and sometimes I still miss the mark. Still, today my client showed me that it was nice for her to be reminded that she wasn’t just being helped and comforted. She was able to help and comfort me as well.