The Public Image of Direct Care Workers





I wince every time I see the words “nursing home aide” appear in a news headline. More often than not, it involves stories of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. In fact, the second most common CNA related Google media alert showing up in my email inbox every week involve negative stories about caregivers. The most common are help wanted ads for CNAs. The correlation there is a subject for another post.

Such media reports reinforce negative stereotypes and distort the public’s perception of who we are and what we do. But I’m not suggesting that the media is in any way obligated to balance these negative reports with positive stories about caregivers. It’s naïve to expect it. Unfortunately, the news media in this country has essentially become a subset of the entertainment industry and outrage is a perverse form of entertainment. A negative story gets our attention better than a positive one and it’s not uncommon for reporters to downplay or ignore details that would make the story more accurate, but less interesting. Besides, the headline for a feel good story about what direct care workers actually do would read more like a headline from The Onion: “Caregiver Treats Nursing Home Resident with Dignity and Respect.”

It’s just not news.

As part of its never ending struggle to improve public opinion of Long Term Care, the industry goes to great lengths to counter these negative impressions of direct care workers and present caregivers in the most positive light possible. In this effort, we are represented by the Brochure Caregiver: the lovely stock photography model with a warm smile and immaculate scrubs. Our model is almost always a few years younger (thus indicating a lesser status) than the stock photography models – also with warm smiles – representing the licensed nurses, assorted LTC professionals and administrators. For the LTC industry, image is king.

Caregivers themselves play a more direct, if limited, role in helping to fashion the public image of CNAs. Every time we interact with visitors from the outside, we represent not only ourselves and our facility, but our profession as well. Like it or not, how we conduct ourselves as individuals and the impression we give visitors is a reflection on all of us.

With the advent of a CNA community on social media, direct care workers now have a platform to address public misconceptions of caregivers that takes us beyond the walls of the work place. And we can do this quite independently from the efforts of our LTC bosses. We have the opportunity to directly address both the health care community and the general public and present something much more real and powerful than either the negative media stereotypes or the LTC industry’s glossy image of caregivers.  How we do this is a matter of articulating how we actually see ourselves and our work. We can – if we choose – define ourselves and create our own identity.

In my next two posts I would like to address how we move from image to identity, and ultimately to advocacy and an independent voice.

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