Author Archives: May

Looking back and forward

May

Life is funny, sometimes. And it’s strange, always it is strange.
For almost three years, I have been writing for CNA Edge. Three years…it hardly seems possible. I must be getting older, because it feels like just yesterday that I was writing my very first post for this blog (Perception, now found in CNA Edge: Reflections from Year One).

But three years have passed, three wild and crazy years. Life marches on, bringing new responsibilities and opportunities. Just to be clear, I’m not leaving CNA Edge for good. I’m just stepping down to part-time contributor. Instead of once a week, I’ll be writing once a month. I’ve learned so much about the world and myself here on this blog; become a better writer and caregiver because of CNA Edge. Now it is time for me to take the lessons I’ve learned and apply them to new challenges.

Long-term care is a crazy corner of a strange world. We form deep bonds quickly with our residents and with our fellow caregivers. We have to: there’s too much work to do and too much stress to bear on our own. The relationships we form lighten the load, making it possible to bear. Not easy…but possible. Something we can struggle through, together.

The human cost of our long-term care system is something that is not counted enough. When it’s easy to justify making a profit off broken backs and burned-out hearts, you know there’s something screwy in the system. Something broken.
If I am proud of one thing I’ve accomplished in these last three years, I’m proud that I helped to empower other CNAs. My words and my stories touched people, helping them remember that they are not alone. Maybe I’ve helped to alter the perception of CNAs…that we aren’t poor, uneducated ass-wipers who can’t do any better than a crappy job. That many of us are intelligent, compassionate and hard-working people, just trying to do our best in a system that is set up against good care. We caregivers fight the clock every shift, just trying to give good care that we can be proud of…and trying to do it in five-minute windows. Drive by care, that’s what we’re forced to give. And it hurts us, to have to offer scraps and band-aids.
For so long, CNAs had no recourse but to swallow the hurt. Not anymore.
We’ve always had thoughts and feelings, voices and stories. Now, we have platforms to speak them from, safe spaces to tell our stories.
And CNA Edge has been so good to me, giving me that platform to write down and share my stories. Carving out time for good care is hard, but it’s easier now, knowing that change is possible. Knowing that there are those among management and policy-makers who do care, and try to implement lessons they’ve taken from my stories. Knowing that there are other CNAs who, like me, process feelings through writing stories.
I’m so grateful to CNA Edge, to Yang and Alice and the friendship we’ve forged here on the Internet.
Guys, you are the best and even though I’m stepping back, just know that I’m not leaving. I’ll still be here for you, even as I embrace new roles and opportunities.

To all my readers, thank you so much for all the likes, shares, comments and support. Your loyalty and support mean so much to me.

The Reason for Silence

  May

Sorry for the silence lately! The lack of posts from me will, hopefully, be made up for next week when we will have something special for you.

CNA Edge: Contemplations from the Second Year––coming soon!

A Wide Movement

May

As I talk about CNA Edge more, there’s a question that keeps coming up: for whom am I writing? What is my target audience?

Whenever I’m asked, my initial reaction is always: “My audience is whoever reads it”.
But that’s a vague answer at best, and no answer at worst. There are some who tell me I should focus more on reaching policy-makers and people in positions of power. And I can follow their line of thinking and I agree with their points: there is a divide between direct care workers and those at the top. That divide hurts our residents, often badly. So yes, I would love to reach more policy-makers.
But not at the expense of also my reaching my fellow CNAs. To put it another way, I do not want to be the sole spokesperson for CNAs to policy-makers and administrators. 

Policies can change. Rules and regulations can be changed with administrations, and then swept away with the next changing wind of politics. I am not dismissing the importance of good policies and those who work so hard to affect change for long-term care. We need people fighting for good policies, and for responsible leadership. We also need people fighting to change the way CNAs think about themselves, to throw off the label of “nothing but an ass-wiper”. If I can do that, then I am not alone. One or even three CNAs speaking up can be ignored. We could even be silenced. How about one hundred CNAs? Or three hundred? How about a thousand, or a million?
That starts by letting CNAs everywhere know that they are not alone. Sometimes I think the worst affect of this broken system is that it makes people who work so closely with others feel utterly alone. We, who have the power to deeply impact the lives of our resident, are often made to feel helpless by all that we cannot change. We feel alone, helpless and burnt out. Silence and sullenness can and do follow.
But together and aloud…what can’t we achieve?
I do not ever want to talk over the heads of my fellow caregivers. I refuse to fall into the trap of thinking that I am somehow more than they are, or that they are something less than me. If I am intelligent, compassionate and eloquent, that does not make me unique among caregivers. Actually, I’d argue that makes me about average. If I stand out, it’s only because I speak out.

What we need now is change, both on a personal level and on a larger cultural one. Compassion, common sense, communication and critical thinking have got to be infused into this broken system. We have to have people dedicated to change on every rung of the ladder…including the one belonging to CNAs.
Just like a democracy cannot function without the active participation of ordinary citizens, neither can our long-term care system function without a principled and vocal base of direct care workers. CNAs who are willing and able to speak up for themselves and their residents.

Honorary Grandparents

 May

In compliance with HIPAA, all resident names and identifying details have been altered. Also, this story did not happen recently.

It’s always strange, coming back to work after extended time off. . .anything longer than a three day weekend. I always seem to think that I’ll lose some skills (or worse, speed) when I come back. I’m not sure where I acquired this idea, nor why I hold onto it.
On the one hand, nothing changes while you’re gone: there’s still too many residents and not enough aides. The work doesn’t change. On the other hand, a lot can change in almost a week. One resident can pass away, another could fall. Mr. J can change from being a standing lift to a hoyer. The residents with more advanced dementia can forget me entirely, others assume the worst from my absence.

Take Mrs. N for example. As soon as she opens her eyes and sees me standing by the foot of her bed, an expression of pure relief floods her face.
“May, you’re back! Did you decide not to abandon us after all?” she asks, grasping my hands as soon as I set her tray down at her beside table.
I’m still worn out from the week I’ve has, so I convey my confusion about her inquiry with an ineloquent but effective syllable: “Huh?”
“You left us,” she says reproachfully. “But I suppose I can forgive you as long as you don’t quit again and leave me.”
“Quit?” I repeat. This is the first I’ve heard about a change in my employment status. “Honey, I didn’t quit.”
“You were gone for so long! And you didn’t tell me goodbye, or say you wouldn’t be here for a while.”
“It wasn’t that long,” I protested.
“It was forever!” she insists, still clinging to my hand. “Well, if you didn’t quit, where did you go?”
I thought I’d be stronger…but then again, how would I know? I’ve never been in this position before. All I know is that now I’m crying again. Sometimes it feels like the tears will never stop, that the pain will never dull.
“I had to bury my grandmother,” I sob out; then Mrs. N pulls me down beside her and holds me until I stop crying.
“Sorry,” I sniffle.
She waves her hand at this, dismissing my embarrassment like so much nonsense. As she looks at me with sympathy, I can see a thought forming behind her eyes. It seems to grow until she can shape into words and says, in a soft, hesitant tone: “Can I be your grandmother now?”
And once again, I get choked up. I pride myself over my command of words, but none will come now and so I just nod my head vigorously, and grip her hands tightly.

The bonds that form between caregiver and resident are often deep. We see each other at our very best, at our worst and every mood in between; we pour so much of ourselves into each other. I am still a girl without a grandma, still hurting from that loss. But it helps, in a way I couldn’t have imagined, to have so many of my residents glad of my return, and willing to share in my grief.
I seem to have a lot of honorary grandparents.

Nursing-home-made

Sunflower May

In compliance with HIPAA, all resident names and identifying details have been altered or removed. 

It’s funny, how a person’s possessions can tell us so much about them. Most new residents come in with very little: just the clothes they wore in the hospital and maybe a small bag. Then, their families either start bringing in loads of stuff…or they don’t. I have seen rooms so crammed full of personal mementoes that it’s hard to care for the resident; so many clothes in the closet that the door won’t shut and every surface covered with knick-knacks.
I have also seen rooms bare weeks after the resident moved in, the only proof of occupation being the person in the bed. Only a few clothes, no knick-knacks…no decorations or pictures.

Mrs. L seems to be one of the latter category. After a week, she still only has the one bag that she had clutched so tightly on the first day, plus a couple outfits. They’re nice, but the kind of nice that has been worn for years and years. Her family comes often, but they seem more stressed each time and their visits get progressively shorter.
There’s always a learning curve, some time required to start feeling comfortable in the new environment…but Mrs. L doesn’t appear to be adjusting at all. She won’t leave the room, she hardly eats and from what I can tell, she seems to spend most of her days screaming into her phone and crying. I decide I can’t kept walking past such agony. We don’t know each other very well, but that’s about to change.
“Hey, can I sit down?” I ask, walking into her room and gesturing to the empty chair (provided by the facility) that sits by her bedside. She shrugs and I take that as permission. Good Lord, but it feels wonderful to get off my feet.
“I’m May, if I haven’t introduced myself before,” I add…although I’ve introduced every day this week. “Do you need anything?”
She shakes her head. I’m trying to decide between asking another question and telling a story about myself when she suddenly starts talking.
“You can’t help, nobody can help. Can you make me better? Can you tell the insurance company not to be assholes? Can you give my family a fortune so they won’t have to sell my house to afford ‘getting me the help I need’? Can you buy back everything of mine they had to sell, so I don’t have to look at bare walls while I wait to die?”

I can’t. I can’t wave a magic wand and sort out the economy, endow her with the money she needs to have a good life even though she is now elderly and disabled.
The only magic I have at my disposal are my imagination and my hands. I stay for a few minutes, now holding her hand as she cries yet again, then I slide off the chair and leave the room.
It only takes a few words in the right ears. When I come back, I’m not alone and we aren’t empty-handed.
We disperse over the room, laying out our various offerings. The Laundry department brought up clothes that have been donated to the nursing (usually by families of resident who have passed away in our care); Activities gave several left-over decorations from the various Arts-and-Crafts over the years. Nursing gathered personal care items from the supply room and arranged them in her drawers. Staff from every department drew pictures and scribbled down nursing-home-made Get Well cards…but the best bit came from a fellow resident. She heard of my cheering-up campaign and told me to pick out the prettiest flowers from the bouquet she got for her birthday and give them to that “poor lady”.

Small acts of kindness in Long-Term Care are not whistling in the dark. With each act of compassion, we light a candle. True, it will take a lot more candles than I can personally light to lift the shadow of greed from our broken system…but that’s the funny thing about kindness. Even when it’s not enough to turn the tide, change the culture or right the wrongs of this world––it is still appreciated and it can still mean the world to that one person.

My hope is that, one day, we will have more to give than what we can scrape up. I hope that one day, compassion will be considered along with costs, that questions of ethics will be given equal standing with questions of economics. 

Broken System vs Personal Responsiblity

Sunflower  May

In compliance with HIPAA, all resident names and identifying details have been altered or removed.

If there’s a story of my career in health care, it’s probably: Nothing happens the easy way, or when I have time to deal with it. Take right now, for instance.
Mr. K has a reputation for being a jokester; he loves to laugh and he loves to make others laugh. The aides are his best audience as we always appreciate a bit of levity. Unfortunately, Mr. K doesn’t so much speak as he does mumble. It’s hard to understand him…especially when he’s cracked up laughing at his own joke. I know from experience that if I keep just repeating that I can’t understand him, his joy will vanish like his independence. So, I lean down and put my face right next to his mouth, in order to catch the words of what I am assuming is a killer joke. When he repeats himself yet again, I don’t take in his words. I can’t; I’m a bit distracted.
His breath is so foul, it smells like something died in it.

I didn’t brush his teeth this morning. I haven’t brushed his teeth all week. As I gag, I ask myself “How did this happen?”

Oral care is often the last part of personal care to be done, and by the time I get to it, I’ve been in the room for fifteen minutes already and ten other call lights are going off. It seems like a quick task, so it’s easy to say “I’ll get to it in a moment,”…and then never actually find time for that moment. When you’re scrambling just to change your people, making the time to do oral care is hard. Adding another five minutes to each resident’s personal care time, when you have ten residents and you’re already running behind…yeah, that adds up quick. Sometimes it is literally a choice between brushing Mr. K’s teeth or changing Mrs. L’s brief before she soaks through her pants. In other words: when you only have ten minutes, what is the most effective way to use them? Most often, we choose the big problems to tackle, the things that have an immediate impact on our residents’ quality of life.
The other problem is that we get so used to dealing with emergencies, crunch-times and hard decisions. We get so used to cutting corners just to survive the day that we form habits around the emergencies. The little things that we had to drop during the crisis? We forget to pick them back up. We get used to not brushing teeth.

The problem of oral care is the problem of this broken system of long-term care, narrowed to razor-thin focus: too few aides taking care of too many residents. We have a system that punishes the aides who take the time to provide good care, and then punishes them again for providing mediocre care. And yet, for all that is true, Mr. K’s mouth still smells like something died in it. I am still his aide…do the flaws of the system really absolve me of my personal responsibility? Being a CNA is, in so many ways, to be forever caught in the moment of drowning: my best isn’t good enough and yet my best is always required.

I laugh, like I got the joke. “Good one, Mr. K! Tell you what, while you think of another one, I’m going to brush your teeth, ok?”

Hangman Holidays

Sunflower   May

In compliance with HIPAA, all resident names and identifying details have been altered or removed. 

Perhaps the strangest part of being a healthcare worker emerges around the holidays. A lot of my family and friends talk about how what they are going to do with their time off; I wonder if I’m going to get any time off or if I’ll have to work extra this year again. 

This is by no means exclusive to healthcare…but it often feels like it. The debate that rages around stores being open during holidays is always “Why do they need to be open? We can shop/go to the movies/eat out/do whatever another day!” You can’t really say that about healthcare. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if all nursing homes and hospitals closed on Christmas, society would come to screeching, screaming halt. No one would celebrate and many would die from lack of care. 

So, nursing homes and hospitals must stay open during holidays, which means they must be staffed. Which means CNAs (among others) must give up their holidays to show up at work and care for their residents. 

The problem is, we want time off to celebrate with our families just as much as everyone else. There’s always an increased amount of grumbling during the holiday season as we try to squeeze family dinners into our few hours off,  have to wake the kids really early in order to them open presents on Christmas morning and miss our various religious services because of our hectic work schedule. There’s a bit of resentment that creeps in even the most dedicated hearts when we’re wearing scrubs while everyone else is dressing up. 

Scheduling around the holidays is like playing Hangman on steroids. It’s trying to guess who’s going to call in because she “deserves Christmas morning off”, who’s going to be cranky all day, who’s going to trade hours with whom. Some aides always seem to be able to get off, while other aides always seem to work every holiday. The reliable/really dedicated aides get called out like vowels during a game of Hangman, which creates its own kind of resentment when you’ve worked doubles on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and then you’re also asked to work New Year’s Day. 

It’s not all bad. I love being with my residents on holidays…just as long as I get a chance for me to celebrate as well. Really, it’s the usual short-staffed story, just exasperated because of all the holiday cheer and emphasis our culture puts on having time off and family get-togethers.

How do you all cope with the craziness of the holiday season at work?

Break Interrupted

Sunflower  May

In compliance with HIPAA, all resident names and identifying details have been altered or removed to protect patient privacy. 

“I need a break!”
With these words, I sweep into the room, startling the occupants.
“So,” says Mrs. R, “go to your break room.”
“Can’t, they’ve already looked in there for me,” I sigh as I drop down on Mrs. R’s bed…it’s the one farthest from the door and it’s the empty one. For good measure, I pull the privacy curtain down to the foot of the bed and arrange my legs so that you can’t see tell-tale nursing shoes from the door. I don’t dare close the door: I wouldn’t be able to listen for call-lights and nothing screams “CNA in here!” louder than a closed door.
Mrs. E, the resident in the first bed, rolls back over and goes back to sleep. She’s always resting her eyes; meal times are her favorite nap times of all. Mrs. R, sitting up in her wheelchair, turns away from the window to look at me…apparently, I’m more interesting than the birds outside. “What do you mean, they looked in the break room for you?” she asks. “It is the law that you have two ten-minute breaks and, knowing you, you probably haven’t taken them already. Tell them to go away.”
I just stare at her. “How do you know that?”
“I listen,” she replies, a bit smugly. “You would have to be completely deaf not to learn every detail of the working conditions here. Someone is always complaining.”
“Um…sorry. I try not to complain in front of you guys––”
“Quit changing the subject. Why don’t you just tell them to go away and leave you alone on your break?”
“Because then they just say ‘Oh, when you’re done’. It’s not one of those things worth kicking up a fuss over. I’m sure if I went and complained to the DON, there’d be an in-service for everyone to sign…and nothing would change. Everyone would continue to interrupt my breaks for the stupidest crap.”
I sound bitter, I realize. The thing is, being fetched out of the break room during one of my few breathers never fails to irritate me. I only take my ten minute breaks when I’m about to snap, but today there is no escaping the madness. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when my nurse stormed into the break room right after I’d gone in, to tell me to get back out on the hall because “there are too many call lights for one person to keep up with”. I think she meant “one CNA” because she has said before that she is “above aide work” and I’ve never once seen her answer a call light.
The next chance I had to take a breather, I decided the break room was not a safe place to take it––so here I am, seeking refuge from the demands of my residents in the company of my residents. Funny how things work, sometimes.

Mrs. R looks at me steadily for a minute while I swing my feet. “That nurse today is lazy,” she declares. “Next time, tell the person interrupting your break to go to hell.”
“Mrs. R!”
“Or, better still, tell them to take care of the crap themselves.”
“Do you really want the nurse you call ‘lazy-ass’ to be the one taking you to the bathroom?” I grin.
“Yes. Then I could fart in her face.”
It’s a good three minutes before I catch my breath enough to answer. Mrs. E grumbles about the noise and tries to burrow deeper into the covers.
“Oh, Mrs. R, never change,” I tell her, still giggling.
“I’m sure I’ll change a bit when I die,” she says. “Can you cuss in Heaven?”
I shrug. “I don’t know, Mrs. R. But I’ve got to get back work now. Thank you for the refreshing break!”
“No, you don’t,” she replies. “You have four more minutes. Sit your ass back down and tell me about what’s going on in your life. Then, you can take me to the toilet. I promise not to fart in your face.”

Laughing together

 

Sunflower May

In compliance with HIPAA, all names and identifying details have been altered or removed to protect patient privacy.
It’s funny that we call the oncoming shift our “relief”. Funny and yet oh-so appropriate. Right now I am so relieved that I hug the poor woman as soon as I spot her on the hall.
“Oh, crap,” she gasps. “Let me go clock out if it’s that bad!”
“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice,” I tell her. “Clearly, they’ve never been to a nursing home or they would know it’s going to end in shit.”
We just look at each other and burst into laughter. It’s not quiet either, a soft chuckle and back work. It’s the kind of laughter that has us both leaning against the wall for support.
Just our luck, the strictest of the management team happens to walk down just then. She raises her eyebrows at our “lounging” posture and we push off the wall so fast I get a bit dizzy.
“What has you both so tickled?” she asks drily.
I glance over to my relief for some moral support, then grudgingly repeat the joke.
Our hard-ass, straight-laced management person doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t even smile, she just says in the same dry tone: “Clearly. What did they feed these people last night?”
“Corn,” I say promptly. “I felt a bit like a gold panner today.”
“Gross!” exclaim both the other CNA and office person.
“Not as gross as what else was in there,” I counter.
Then, all three of us are laughing, leaning against the wall for support.
<oOo>

Sometimes it easy to get lost in the trenches. We line up on opposite sides, slap labels over the other’s face.
Housekeeper.
Cook.
Administrator.
Supervisor.
First shift CNA.
Second shift CNA.
Third shift CNA.
New CNA.
Student.
Resident.
“Those” residents.
Labels are nifty little things, handles by which grab on to something. The trouble comes when we forget to look beyond the handle to see what it is we’ve actually picked up.
Another human being. A person who laughs and cries, the same as us. A person who laughs at your exhausted attempt at humor.
At its best, laughter is the best medicine. Laughter can connect us, transcend the labels and jump the lines.
It’s really hard to give good care all by yourself in this system. Having allies by your side, someone to lighten the load, relieve you and sometimes just not punish you for a moment’s breather…those things really go a long way. Those things are what allow me to survive long enough to have those personal moments with my residents that renew my passion for this field.

Empathy vs Apathy

Sunflower  May

In compliance with HIPAA, all names and identifying details have been altered or removed to protect patient privacy.

Can I ask you something?” a newbie CNA asks me…in that tone of voice that usually means “Trouble this way”. We’re assisting Mrs. A to eat her lunch, although “assist” doesn’t quite seem like the right word when all she can do on her own is open her mouth. 

“Um,” I say, “sure.”

“That one aide. Why is she like this? How do you get to point where you just don’t care? Why does she act like giving these people your very best is a waste of time?”

“Well,” I sigh. “There’s a lot of stress that goes with being a CNA, and a lot of the time you don’t seem to be making a difference…”

He picks up the spoon, loads it up with mashed potatoes and gently gives it to Mrs. A. “There,” he says, “I just made a hell of a lot of difference for her.”

I almost come out of my seat. “Promise me you’ll stick with this,” I say fervently. “You’re right. Every little bit we do makes the world of difference…but sometimes it’s hard to remember that when you’re frustrated, over-worked and, well, when nobody else sees the good you do. And for that one aide, well, sometimes it’s easier to shut off the part of you that can feel, to spare you from feeling despair. Some aides learn how not to care to survive this broken system ”

“You didn’t,” he says indignantly. “I won’t.”

“Remember that promise,” I say gently, “but also remember this: deciding to be a good aide is not a battle you will ever leave behind you. It’s a choice you will have to keep making every single shift, to do your best even when it seems pointless, to keep being kind even when your efforts seem as terminal as your resident.”

“Is that what makes a bad aide then?” He asks. “Deciding that your best isn’t required? Choosing apathy over empathy?”

∞oOo∞

What is the good of small acts of kindness done for a person who will shortly be dead? Isn’t it a waste of time and talent? Isn’t your struggle to be kind as terminal as the disease killing your resident? One day soon, your resident will lie cold in a bed and there will be nobody left to remember how you put off your break so you could fluff her pillow. Nobody saw you give a good bed bath to Mr. T instead of just running a wet wash cloth over him. So what’s the point of trying? Why put yourself through the agony of giving good care in a system that is not set up for small acts of compassion?

Nobody wants to admit to having these feelings. Who wants to stand up and proclaim to the world that you wonder if somebody’s grandparent was worth the effort?
So instead of acknowledging these doubts, you repress them. You decide that you’re going to be a good caregiver, not like those bad ones who seem to act only on your worst thoughts. So you take your doubts and you shove them down, bury them deep, you say that you’ll never be like those CNAs…but idealism and good intentions will only carry you so far. Eventually, you will reach the place where everything exists in extremes and to feel at all is to be in pain. In that place, it easier to just shut it off, to distance yourself from that which causes you pain.
In this case, what causes you pain is the same thing that causes you doubts.
How do you handle the stress of constantly never being good enough? When you are constantly given more work than you can do and when you see your residents suffering because of it…what can you do?
Becoming a jaded CNA is not a single decision you make; there’s no switch you flip between “good CNA” and “bad CNA”. It is instead a series of small compromises. It’s slowly learning how to shut off the connection between you and the resident, until that resident seems more like work than a person. It’s getting to the place where your worst thoughts are the only ones you can hear. That’s when you become the thing you swore to never be.
This is how you surrender your compassion…because it hurt too much to care. Empathy hurts and apathy is appealing.
So, to all new CNAs, don’t go in blind. Being a CNA is like holding your heart to a cheese-grater. To feel is to feel pain. You will doubt whether you’re actually doing any good, and any difference you make will seem to die with your resident.
When these doubts came, face them. Look them straight in the eye and do not despair.
Doubts do not define you; a feeling that came over you during the struggle does not make you a bad person. But a feeling you buried deep in the bedrock of your soul, left to fester until it poisoned all the feelings that came after it…that one might, in ways you never expected. Sometimes, they chain you in such a way that you will never get free. The only way to break the chains is to acknowledge that they are there.
Remember that empathy hurts, but apathy doesn’t…because apathy means you don’t feel anything. Not pain and not joy. You can’t have one without the other, not in life and especially not in Long-Term Care.

And most of all, do not forget the other person in the room. Never forget the silent observer to the tiny acts of compassion, to all the sacrifices and struggles to carve out room for good care.
Do not forget yourself.