The call light that everyone dreads goes off. As I head off down the hall to answer it, I hear the housekeeper mutter a warning:
“Be careful of the family, ok?”
At the time, I don’t think much of the warning. I’ve dealt with unpleasant families before and while it’s not fun, I can handle it. I go in the room with a smile on my face.
“Hello, can I help you?”
My answer comes loud and angry.
“Look at this!” the resident’s son yells. “Look at her sheets!”
I look, but from over by the door, all I can see is that they look a bit rumpled. It must show in my face because the son reaches out towards the bed and then swings around, his arm outstretched. A white cloth swings from his hand: it’s the bed-pad. I wonder vaguely how he got it out from underneath the resident…but then he’s shouting again.
“It’s filthy! Look at this brown spot!”
I know what he’s talking about; I am familiar with this small brown dot, no bigger than a couple quarters. I say the worst possible thing I could:
“I think that’s a stain, sir, but I’ll–”
The rest of my sentence, a promise to get a new pad anyway, never comes out. It never has a chance. The next thing I know, he’s red in the face and towering over me…and I’m not a CNA anymore. I’m a woman, backed into a corner by a large, scary man and I react instinctually.
Thankfully, we both come to our senses the second we see my hands, clenching into tight fists, rising up to my chest in a self-protective gesture. He stops, no longer moving towards me but still invading my personal space. That just makes me more angry…but a different kind of anger. It’s an anger that is intellectual as well as emotional; I’m able to articulate and not just react.
I unclench my fists and hold them palms outward. At the same time, I take a half-step forward, reclaiming my personal space in as non-aggressive a way as I can. I’m thinking “This had better work, cause this is all I’ve got.”
Aloud, I say, “Okay. I will fix it, let me get the nurse.”
I don’t really give him time to react, I just side-step quickly and I’m out the door.
We all know who they are, the monster families. They are, in many ways, the bogey men of the staff…in much the same way as negligent staff are the bogey men of the families.
That both exist is fact, plain and simple. The fear on both ends is primal: the families are afraid of their loved one being neglected and the staff is afraid complaints to state and yes, physical violence. I know it has to be hard to trust a group of relative strangers with your loved one’s health and safety…but I know also know it’s hard to take care of someone, knowing that any little thing might wake the beast in their families. Hard to focus on the job when the people who are supposed to be your partners in care are out to get you. But I still am have to act like the professional. The truth is, this isn’t an area I excel at. It’s hard for me to take insults or aggressive behavior laying down; I always want to react, defend myself. I don’t handle these situations that well and I can’t defuse them with the effortless grace that I’ve seen in other nurses and aides. It’s just not my strong suit.
I’m shaking as I go back to the nurse’s station and I’m terribly afraid I’m going to start crying from sheer anger. Thankfully, I don’t need a lot of words to explain what happened to my nurse. All that’s needed for me to say the room number and she shakes her head.
“I’ll handle it,” she says grimly.
And that, amazingly, was that. While he never was what you could call a “pleasant” family, he never again backed me or anybody else into a corner…instead sticking the more usual methods of expressing displeasure, such as constantly complaining. I never quite had the nerve to ask whether he was actually told to refrain from intimidating the aides, or whether my frightened reaction got through to him. He actually was on occasion pleasant with me…which I found to be creepy.
I wish I could say that all problems with aggressive families can be resolved so easily…but the truth is, they are a staple in long term care.
The best care, in my opinion, comes when the family and staff work together for the good of the resident. Sadly this is not always the case…and the fault lies on both sides, sometimes slanted more heavily on one side or the other.
Those are the times when I wish the families and staff alike would remember that little kindness goes a long way.