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?”