Role Reversal




“Stop it.” she said, as I adjusted her enormous purple pillow beside her in her wheelchair, making sure she could maneuver her unaffected hand enough to play Word Whomp on her tablet.

“Stop what?” I asked without looking up.

“WORRYING. You’re going to give yourself an ulcer.”  I have cared for this particular resident for more than three years now. I was the first caregiver she met when she arrived at our facility and we became fast friends. Funny, incredibly intelligent, stubborn, and sometimes impatient, she is one of the most remarkable people I have ever had the pleasure to know…she could also read me like a book.

“I’m not worrying,” I said with more certainty than I felt.

“You are so. You always get a wrinkle between your eyebrows and chew on your bottom lip. Spill it,” she said without looking up from her game. Sigh. No time. I had seven more showers to finish, call bells were going off and it was almost time for breakfast. Besides, it wasn’t her job to cheer me up. It was my job to care for her.

“I’ve got to go. I’ll be back to check on you in a little while,” I said as I headed out the door.       “Fine. But you’ll be spending your lunch break with me. You either come back in here or I will find you and ‘accidentally’ run over your foot with my wheelchair.”…she’d done that once before in a fit of anger. I’d always suspected that it wasn’t exactly by mistake, little devil that she could be sometimes.

The morning melted into the early afternoon, blurring by as showers melded into beds that needed to be changed. Between snack time, intervening a feud between residents, and redirecting another one of my folks with a propensity for thievery, I didn’t catch a breath until nearly one o’clock. I decided to take my lunch while the sea was calm.

As I headed down the hall after I clocked out, I felt a nudge on the heel of my left sneaker. I turned around in surprise to see my friend in her power wheelchair. She really is hell on wheels in that thing. I’m lucky I only got nudged.

“Let’s go,” she demanded. There was no room for argument. This was my own fault. About a year ago, I made the mistake of telling her that I consider her and the other residents my boss. In my book, everyone else, including administration, was secondary. It went straight to her head.

“Fine. It’s peaceful in your room and I can still hear the hallway if there’s an emergency.” I perched on the end of her bed as she raised her chair up, elevated her feet and looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

“It’s NOTHING! Honestly. It’s no big deal.” She said nothing. Damn it. She KNEW I was uncomfortable with long awkward silences. Before I knew it, almost as if my mouth had a mind of its own, I found myself pouring my heart out to her; openly discussing my fear that my poor choices in my past would always define me, my frustration that I would never be able to move beyond my current level of effectiveness. I expressed my deep longing to do more to make life better for them and my sincere gratitude that life brought me to this place. My feelings of loneliness and the feeling that I’m always just a little off. A little weird. To my horror, I felt tears on my face. This was no good! I was breaking my own professional boundaries! This was a BIG no-no in the books!

After a moment, she cocked her head in my direction and said, “Well…you ARE a little weird. You are one of the few people I’ve ever met who didn’t see my wheelchair first. From the first day we met, you never assumed I was mentally slow because of how I talk. THAT’S WEIRD! That’s gloriously, wonderfully weird. So yes. You are a weirdo. It’s one of my favorite things about you. Look. I’m a college graduate. I’m an artist. I used to paint before my hand got too bad. Even sold a painting or two. I’ve been to Hawaii before. I am sure as hell bigger than Cerebral Palsy. And YOU are bigger than your mistakes. Hell, we all have a story.”

I took a deep breath and realized, right or wrong, I felt much better after our conversation.

Before I left to clock back in, I gave her a hug and apologized for unloading on her. She looked at me thoughtfully. “No apology necessary. Maybe a thank you for offering such profound wisdom free of charge…Besides, it’s nice to be reminded that I can still be useful,” she said wistfully.

I thought about that for a moment; how I would feel in her shoes. Smart as a whip and capable of much more than most people realized, but minimized to someone who constantly needs care despite the fact that she has so much to offer others. I would go crazy. It’s such a vital part of life to feel useful and of service. I realized then that while setting boundaries is a necessary part of our job, it is just as important to know when to lower our guard and let our residents in. Take away the roles and the walls and we are all just people. She reminded me that life isn’t about the hand we are dealt. It’s about how we play the cards. I gave her a hug before I left her room.

“Thank you for talking me out of my meltdown… And stop running over people with your wheelchair. There are better, albeit less effective, ways to get your points across.”

I sometimes wonder who is taking care of whom.

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