The Undiscovered Country




Since it’s National Nursing Assistants Week, I would like to say something about our self-identity as caregivers and what I think is our greatest, untapped potential.

It’s popular on social media to refer to CNAs as “angels” or “heroes.” I know what is meant by that and it’s not a bad way to characterize someone who gives so much of themselves on a daily basis. But I’ve never been comfortable with those words. Not out of a sense of false modesty, but rather out of an awareness of what my faults mean in this setting. I resent feeling like I have to expend effort that would be better used elsewhere just to maintain some kind of paragon of virtue image.

While compassion, attentiveness and self-sacrifice is truly the stuff of angels, it is practiced with very human imperfection. Like anyone else, we suffer from personal flaws and make mistakes and sometimes those flaws and mistakes impact those around us, including the people in our care.  And as we cope with our deficiencies and learn from our mistakes, we try to maintain the highest level of care possible. But we’re not always consistent.

You can establish a reputation and patterns of behavior, but the only thing that really counts is what you do next. So you give, you give, you give. And then you give some more – despite your inconsistencies and contradictions.  The key is to keep moving both physically and psychologically. The alternative is to surrender to hopelessness and self-pity. Either it all matters or nothing does. Make a choice.

We don’t have to be angels or heroes. We can be something so much better than that: we can be real. We can be dependable and trustworthy and honest. So much of what we do – the most important things in fact – are done down the hallway, behind closed doors, behind privacy curtains and away from the places where image and labels means so much. That’s where we are needed the most. That’s where we are at our best.

We sustain ourselves psychologically by those singular moments with residents that bring meaning to our work. Those opportunities where we have taken the time to see them and engage them on an emotional level, person to person. At the same time, we can’t help but be aware that others are going without. More than anything, we want to reach them all.

The desire to reach them all is powerful and universal. It is the underlying theme of our collective identity as caregivers. It explains both the frustration we feel and our motivation to give. Listen and watch on the units and you’ll see it. Read between the lines in the postings on the CNA Facebook pages and you’ll see it.

And for the future of long-term care, it is a self-sustaining but largely untapped resource.

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