Dinner here for our residents is from 4:30 to 6 o’clock. For us that means getting all the residents up and in the dining room by 4:20 at the latest, half of them still bleary from sleep, morosely taming flyaway hair with the brushes and combs they’re used to taking to the dinner table. Some bring mirrors and little bags of makeup, applying a fifth or sixth coat of lipstick. It’s that or rouse them early from their naps, or not let them take naps at all, and I like to let my people do what they want, for the most part.
From 4:30 to 5:30 I try to help the dietary aides in the dining room with the residents. Their job is tougher than it looks. I know, I’ve bussed and served tables, and we’re talking about feeding the blind, deaf, plain ol’ crazy people shredding their menus into confetti and pissing off their neighbors, and the one obstinate curmudgeon whose damned well going to get eggs and sausage with his mashed potatoes, even though it’s dinner time and he’s on a pureed diet and knows it.
At my last job they didn’t have dietary aides, but nor were there as many residents to feed, or such a varied menu. On paper it looks like an amazing smorgasbord: everyone has at least two menu choices for their appetizer, entrée, accompaniments, and desserts, and then half a dozen extra things on an “All Day Menu” that can be ordered up. In practice it’s a mess. When you’re not hustling around to scream out what was written in sloppy cursive font on the menu to one resident while another to her left is leaning in to listen, and the one to the right is about ready to scream right back at you to shut up, you have to listen to the residents tell you that this isn’t what they ordered, what is this? Clam chowder? I ordered the rice pilaf! When you’re not doing those things, you’re reassuring residents that their food is coming. Just because someone else got their entree first doesn’t mean yours isn’t on its way. And pouring coffee. You have to learn fast that some of these people have an architect’s eye for every aspect of their life, especially the amount of coffee you need to put in their cup. When they say three quarters full, they mean not a goddamn drop more, and you better thrust out your palm to catch that rogue drop of scalding liquid or else endure their unending wrath.
When it looks like everyone has been fed and watered, the complaining about the food and Tom constantly getting up from the table to teach the dietary aides how they should be serving or make a general nuisance has ended, you can go downstairs to the café, praying there’s something half decent on the menu. 9 times out of 10—no. Not only will it sound bad on the big digital menu, the smell and look of it as you turn the corner into the brightly lit, homey cafeteria will dissuade you from anything but your usual French fries and a burger, or a tuna on wheat with potato chunks mixed in. Why do they do that? you think, for the millionth time. Who puts potato in tuna? Did they hire the Joker to run this place?
You grab a to-go box, get your food and hurry back upstairs to get the stragglers out of the dining room because it’s time to reset the tables. Like clockwork, someone from dietary comes up with a big steel box on wheels to retrieve trays and trash, chat with the dietary girl while you put your food on the nurse’s station and get Fran out of her seat. She’s heavy and unstable, so it takes some time to get her up, but eventually she’s good and can walk back to her room across the hall on her own. You wipe your brow and look out in time to see Gretta’s silver and grey afro of curls bobbing over the spot where you left your meal. She’s trying to get it open. You gently shoo her away, but you know it’s still not time to eat. Because now everyone has eaten they’re cranky and ready to get back to bed. Some of them have been out of the dining room for a half an hour already, which is an eternity in old people time. You hide your food box and go do rounds, stomach growling.
This job is sacrificial in nature, and whether that means holding it until your shift is done or scarfing a few bites of food in between showers, our people come first. We go hungry to keep them fed, to make them warm and comfortable. Our stomachs growl, but at least our residents are safe and happy. If we’re not happy to make those small sacrifices we’re at least willing out of a deeper love for people who need more help and attention than we do. That sacrifice is one of the things that separates a good aide from a bad one for me.