The Best of Times/ The Worst of Times

photo    Alice
       Ah, life on the floor; messy, rewarding, difficult, frustrating, chaotic, painful, endearing, hilarious, and so worthwhile. Sometimes you pick a calling and sometimes a calling picks you. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I have my love/hate moments with this career, but even on my worst days, I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.
The lessons I’ve learned from working as a caregiver have transcended into all areas of my life, the most profound of which I picked up from the toughest aspects of the job. It is a career that fosters self-reflection and deep insight, if we as caregivers, allow it.  With this is mind, I came up with three of my favorite lessons and three of my biggest challenges. I will start with the positive.
                                        The Best of Times
1. The relationships.  Everything that I do as a caregiver revolves around my relationships with others. From the dynamic, vital and loving connections with my residents, to the cooperative partnerships with my fellow caregivers on the floor, to communicating effectively with those    in other departments, the relationships, even those that are occasionally contentious, are the glue; the underlying pulse that connects us to the long-term system at large.  These relationships both enrich us AND empower us. I have found it mutually beneficial to form connections with visiting family, house doctors, ombudsman, nurses and anyone else who comes into the facility regularly. Often, WE as caregivers, have to be the ones to initiate such relationships, but once formed, they open the doors to effective communication that is so desperately needed in this field. We all learn from one another if we are open to it.
2. The ability to adapt. In May’s last post, she explained the challenges, frustrations and powerlessness of constant short-staffing with perfect eloquence. Every word she wrote was spot-on. Unfortunately, until the system evolves, there is very little chance of this issue being solved. The silver lining is that such conditions force us to adapt; to assess quickly and think on our feet. We HAVE to adapt because if we don’t, our residents suffer for it. It has been one of those life lessons that I learned through experiences at work, almost without realizing that I was learning it. I can not overstate the impact it has made on my life, both on the floor and off.
3. The ability to overcome. No one can survive for very long in this field without developing the ability to persevere.  We face any number of obstacles and challenges on a given shift. From loss of loved ones to supply shortages; From dealing with shoddy work ethics to ill-timed mandatory meetings put in place by management who has no working knowledge of the routine on the floor, we keep moving through it all. We HAVE to. The people for whom we care depend on us to be as consistent as possible, come what may. And, if I’m honest, the intoxicating mixture of pure joy, relief, and sense of accomplishment that comes from making it though and impossible shift gives me a feeling of temporary invincibility and for just a moment, I feel like Wonder Woman.The Worst of Times
1. Loss. It is inevitable. It is heartbreaking. It is a part of the job that never gets easier. It also comes in many forms. Clearly, death is the most obvious. When it is expected, it brings with it the peace that comes from knowing that I  had the privilege of walking hand in hand with a vital human being in the end of their story on earth. Even when it’s unexpected, I know in the back of my mind that I’m caring for sick people and it is part of the job. Acceptance of death is a difficult part of the gig.
Far more surprising and ultimately more difficult is the loss of hope. And make no mistake, I have my fair share of “those days”. Those days when I question if what I do is nothing more than tossing pebbles in the ocean; the days when I question my abilities, when the system seems so impossibly flawed that I ask myself why I bother; the days that I think I’d be better off selling shoes or  waiting tables. I’d definitely make more money. Those days scare me. They pop up after long stretches without enough sleep or when I neglect self-care.  They always pass.
I am blessed with a great love for what we do. It doesn’t mean I don’t get burned out or question this calling, but it does mean that at the end of the day, I am not confused about what we caregivers are and why we do what we do. We develop tools to handle the emotional baggage in this field. One of mine is writing about it. It’s my way of never giving up. After all, it may be a big ocean, but there are a lot of pebbles.
    2. Lack of communication. Ideally, long-term care facilities would run like a body in motion. The legs, arms, and mind cooperating and moving in synergy. Ideally.  The reality of it is, each department in my facility fends for itself, with little or no guidance from the office…until there is an inevitable mess to mop up. It is such an ineffective way to run a ship that I find myself constantly baffled as to why the powers that be choose to continue on that course.  Simple things, like informing 1st shift that their cover is going to be late BEFORE it’s time to clock out, or letting us on the floor know ahead of time that there are major changes in the works so we can prepare our residents or letting us know more than ten minutes in advance that we have a new resident arriving would do wonders to PREVENT resentments from forming rather than having mandatory meeting on anger in the workplace AFTER those resentments inevitably spill over.  Good communication is a sign of respect. We all owe each other that.
  3. Sometimes, it’s frustrating when people do not understand. Death, the elderly, broken systems, and body fluids.  Not everyone will see the humor in a resident who decided to use his own poop as a new art medium. Even I only saw the humor in hindsight. Not everyone wants to understand the devastation on a Vietnam vet stuck wasting away alone in a facility. No family. A ward of the state as his mind slowly erodes. People don’t understand the bond that forms between partners on the floor; two people who may be completely different working together to make the day as smooth as possible. Very few know the difference between the reality on the floor vs. the public perceptions of long-term care facilities and even fewer care. It is NOT first date conversation material. Learn from my mistake on THAT one. Because of this, it can sometimes feel very lonely in this field. It can be frustrating to have to explain why I’m “only” a CNA. But then I think, that’s EXACTLY the problem. And either I’m going to be a part of redefining what it means to be a caregiver or I’m going to die trying. That is a lofty goal and it isn’t one any of us can achieve alone. But it is so very important. After all, nothing ever changes without first recognizing the problem, and then attempting to be a part of the solution. The problem ISN’T with the job title. It is the with the descriptor “ONLY”.

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