In a recent post on one of the CNA Facebook pages, a caregiver complained about some disparaging remarks made by her RN supervisor regarding the intelligence of CNAs. Some commenters – including a few CNAs – echoed the RN’s opinion by saying that an individual doesn’t have to be particularly bright in order to do this kind of work. As you might expect, other commenters voiced some rather strong objections to that notion.
Part of this disagreement stems from the fact that caregiving in an LTC setting is almost always described in terms of the physical and emotional qualities of the work. Things such as compassion, empathy and altruism are highly valued, but are almost exclusively understood in an emotional context. The intellectual side of caregiving is rarely talked about or even thought to exist. Yet the work includes several aspects that require significant mental ability and effort.
The misunderstanding is further complicated by how we define intelligence. The distinction between “book smart” and “street smart” is widely understood and accepted. The first is associated with academic success, while the second is more of a practical intelligence that helps us navigate through life’s many problems. Since employment as a caregiver has comparatively low educational requirements, CNAs are often thought of as lacking “book smarts.” While this is an unfortunate stereotype, it is certainly true that good CNAs exhibit a great deal of practical intelligence.
There is a popular meme on social media that is ostensibly directed toward RN supervisors “Our skills are DIFFERENT. Not LESS. Sincerely: Your Hardworking CNAs.” If we accept that our skills are “different but not less,” then it should be just as easy to accept that how we employ our intellect may also be “different but not less.”
Since most caregivers work in environments that include overwhelming caseloads, they are compelled to organize their time in the most efficient manner possible. Each shift is a unique time puzzle that the caregiver must solve if the residents are going to receive the best care he or she can provide. But the puzzle is dynamic, the “pieces” changing according to the immediate needs and expectations of residents, coworkers and management. The caregiver must continually adapt his or her time organization to ever changing circumstances and priorities. In essence, the caregiver spends the day involved in perpetual problem solving with ethical implications. This requires more than a caring attitude. It requires the ability to think on your feet and make immediate judgements that have positive outcomes. This is practical intelligence in action.
The mental aspect of caregiving is also an important part of the caregiver-resident relationship. In a narrow sense, we can sometimes provide intellectual stimulation for residents (and vice-versa) as part of our larger social relationship with them. In many cases, we are the primary source for this. More importantly, the ability to see past age and disability and look at a resident as an individual with unique qualities who is still capable of personal development is indicative of high interpersonal intelligence. What the Green House Project calls “a deep knowing” goes beyond simple sensitivity and familiarity with the resident. It is a level of awareness that requires abstract thought and imagination. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the part of our brain that develops abstract thought is also responsible for managing the higher emotions such empathy and altruism.
Finally, intrapersonal intelligence can play a critical role in the life of a caregiver. It’s easy to get lost in the emotional milieu and drama of an LTC work environment. We experience such a complex mix of thoughts and emotions on a daily basis, often crisscrossing with the people around us who are also going through something similar. The accumulative effect over the course of weeks, months and years can sometimes be a little overwhelming, even debilitating. The ability to process these thoughts and feelings and gain some perspective is a function of intrapersonal intelligence. Articulating those thoughts and feelings help us make sense of them and provides a coping mechanism. But also, through reflection and introspection we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the true meaning of our work. We learn to accept our weaknesses and employ our strengths. And we grow as caregivers.
CNAs ARE smart. But sometimes, it’s just in a different way.