It’s a serious question and apparently, I’ve landed on the wrong side. I’m not going to take this quietly, though.
“Come on buddy, don’t tell me you would rather have mashed potatoes than fries!” I laugh. “I don’t know if I can be friends with someone who doesn’t like fries!”
I’m in the dining room, helping a resident eat his lunch. He’s in favor of the alternative menu and I’m just flabbergasted that he’s actually turning down fries. This is what I love, these lighthearted moments with friends, albeit friends with an abundance of wrinkles and a shortage of range of motion and memory storage.
The resident chuckles for a moment, then falls silent. The look on his face becomes far too serious and sad for a conversation about potato products. From my years as a CNA, I’ve picked up what you could call a sixth sense for when something’s not right…and it’s going into overdrive right now. He’s about to say something, ask one of the Questions we dread as CNAs.
“Are you my friend?” he finally asks. “You get paid.”
Oh. It’s that one.
“To take care of you,” I reply. “Caring about you comes free of charge.” It’s a good response and I’m proud of it…until he opens his mouth again.
“So if they stopped paying you, or someplace else offers you more money, would you still be here? Would you still be my friend?”
The trouble is these two questions are so different and yet so alike. For the most part, friendship requires proximity.
If my place were to suddenly drop my wages by a significant percent, yes, I would be gone. I wouldn’t stay at a place
And yes, I’ve left one nursing home for another one that, among other things, offered me more money. I rarely went back for visit; to be quite honest, I was burnt out and needed a semi-clean break at first. Then life got busy, I started getting invested in my new place and there just wasn’t a whole lot of time.
I missed my residents from the first place, almost painfully at times, but I moved on.
Some friend, right?
Except while I was there, I gave them my all. I never made them any promises I couldn’t keep. I’ve never told my residents the “I’m not going anywhere” without the qualifying “that I know of” added on. I cared for them, about them, sacrificed so much of my time and life for them. When I left, I didn’t take the coward’s way out. I personally told all of my residents that I was going to be leaving, that I still cared about them but for other reasons I had to go. I had to do the best thing for me and my family. It hurt like hell and I promised myself I wasn’t going to become one of those aides that jump from nursing home to nursing home. I don’t want to ever get used to that feeling of leaving.
Money can’t buy you love, they say. Yet here I am, a paid worker– as I should be. I’m paid to provide good quality care and I do. They don’t pay me to form friendships with my residents. That part I do because I want to, because I simply don’t know how to care for my people without caring about them.
I don’t do this for the money, but I also don’t do this for free, either. I’ve got a strict “no working off the clock” policy, but I’m not just here for the paycheck. I shouldn’t be made to feel bad for desiring a true living wage for doing the job I love and do well.
I’m worthy of my wages, and yet I am not defined by them.
I’m still sitting at the table, staring at my resident. I’m frozen by the question, frozen because I don’t have a perfect answer. Truth, like life, is messy.
In the end I sigh and look my resident square in the eye.
“I have to take care of my family, buddy, and that means I have to make money. But I’m not bought and paid for; I choose to make my money here, and that’s due in large part to you guys, my people. Any rate, they don’t pay me enough to fake compassion or affection.”
“So you aren’t going anywhere?”
“Not that I know of,” I say. “Got no plans to leave and I promise I’ll tell you if that changes. Now are you seriously going to eat those mashed potatoes and ignore the delicious fries?”
He looks down, then back up. “Mashed potatoes are the best,” he grins.
“Man, I love you but you’re wrong. Fries rule!”