I get so tired sometimes. I want to shrink from this world that seems to subsist and thrive on anger, panic and fear. Has it always been this way and I’ve just been oblivious to the fever of it or is this some new beast fueled by everyone’s absolute certainty that they are right? The days of context and nuance seem to be gone for the moment and shades of grey no longer exist. Black or white. Right or wrong. Bottom line thinking for an end results world.
I am never very certain about very much. In my experience, that way lies madness. I have certain ethical guidelines and passions that anchor me and I try to keep my mind open to learning from others who have different points of view. Work has been vital for my sanity in this social climate where people seem to be filling some inner need by yelling at one another and coming up with shallow, half-hearted and blame-filled excuses to the deep and complex problems that our society is facing. I guess that’s easier and less satisfying than putting aside anger and wounded egos in order to come together and effectively work toward common solutions. We currently live in a world where everyone wants to be the boss but no one wants to lead.
Those of us who work in Long Term Care are no strangers to the damage such a management style causes. It’s flat out ineffective. The best supervisors are the ones who roll up their sleeves regardless of who is watching. If I only see you when state is in the building, I’m less likely to trust you around those in my care. I have more respect for an LPN who will help me calm a resident who is lashing out in fear than a career administrator with degrees on the wall who’s first solution is Ativan because she’s about to give a tour to a potential new client and wants the hall orderly. That is the difference between a leader and a boss. Because I find my own personal standards of quality care to be much higher than what is expected of us, I have no need for a boss. I learn from leaders, however, and that makes them as invaluable as they are rare.
I decided to step back from Facebook for a little while. Every other status I read is angry. Every article posted has completely different facts cherry picked to enrage or validate you depending on what side of the given position you take. They all agree that everything is the absolute worst. The only difference is who they believe is to blame…and all of that is crap. Cynical, self serving crap wrapped in a bow made of ego.
But, Alice! Aren’t you concerned about the state of affairs?! Of course I am, possibly shocked and appalled reader, but here’s the thing…this is NOWHERE NEAR as bad as it’s been. In my years in this field I’ve cared for people of color who actually lived through the civil rights era. I’ve cared for a Vietnam vet who lost his sight, and a WWII vet who lost his leg. I’ve cared for people who were children during the Great Depression and for people who lived through the Cold War. I’ve had women in my care who lived in a time when it was more socially acceptable to be an abused wife than a divorced woman. Collectively, we survived all of that. As a society, we have faced our worst behaviors and bit by bit we have grown from them; progressed step by painful step forward. I refuse to believe that this…this angry, entitled, backwards thinking reality we are all actively creating is going to stick. I have more faith in us than that.
Individuals are all more than one thing. Are my residents simply their Alzheimer’s disease? Or prostate cancer? Or schizophrenia? Are they not bigger than that? Am I not more than my political affiliation? Is it not beautiful that we are all people who bleed the same? It is a combination of different ideas and individual experiences that gives life it’s richness. When did we decide that we should only surround ourselves with those who look, think, believe and behave exactly like us? How can we possibly come up with and solutions to vastly complex issues without the benefit of diverse ideas and the freedom to dissent without fear?
So I would like to thank every single person who has ever been in my care for teaching me gratitude and perspective. Life is too short to waste on fear and anger over troubles that we create or stir up in our minds before they even occur. I would also like to thank you for living through adversity and sharing your stories so I know what courage looks like. I would like to thank my fellow caregivers who adapt to the reality on the floor rather than the one we are told to expect. We come together to make the most of what is rather than complain about what should be…ok to be fair sometimes we do both but for the most part we are about action. It is a diverse world on the floor, full of people from all walks of life with a variety of skills and reasons for being in this field. Despite what some may think, we cannot all be painted with one brush and for that I am incredibly thankful. This field has honed a strength in me that would not have developed otherwise and directed a passion for purpose toward a path where it would be put to good use. I get tired, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I get these reminders at least five nights a week. I can step back from the combative and fear filled world online and reorient myself to the world in which I live.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes it easy to get lost in the trenches. We line up on opposite sides, slap labels over the other’s face.
First shift CNA.
Second shift CNA.
Third shift CNA.
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.
At times, it’s really hard to be professional. No, strike that––sometimes it’s really hard to be nice. This is one of those times I really wish I could just open my mouth and…well.
Breathe. Breathe and move on. Do not respond. Do not reply. This is neither the place nor the time for such a discussion. You aren’t calm enough not to scream, so don’t say anything. Prove him wrong with your actions. I keep thinking these words until I wonder if they’ve been seared onto the inside of my eyelids from the sheer force of repetition. It’s hard because I have to be professional and they can be whatever they want to, even if that’s unkind.
All this started because Mrs. L’s husband had come over for a visit. And he is a man with Opinions. He’s not one to keep them to himself either…and I could perhaps forgive him his outspokenness if I wasn’t the target of his outrage. Or I should say, one of the targets. Today, Mr. L has Opinions about Millennials.
“Man, kid these days,” he rants to his wife, ignoring me as I labor to make her bed behind him. “What idiots. When we were kids, man, I tell you, nobody was so selfish. They just want everything handed to them. Afraid of hard work, that’s what they are.”
I’m putting the pillowcase on as he says these words and I am so tempted to…no. Absolutely not, May, that is utterly unacceptable behavior. You are not allowed to even think that. Never mind that I’ve been hard at work for five hours already today, with seven more to go. Never mind that I’m in overtime for the umpteenth week in a row. Never mind that I haven’t had a break or a breather since I clocked in. Never mind…
“What is this world coming to?” he muses. “These kids are crazy and they don’t know nothing. Everything wrong in this world is because of them, I think. When we were young, we were taught to respect our elders, but I wouldn’t trust a dog with these so-called Millennials. What a disgrace––”
I can’t take this anymore. I dart around Mr. and Mrs. L, leaving the bed half-made and escape into the hallway.
No, he didn’t trust a dog to a Millennial. It was his wife he entrusted to my care. Many of the CNAs and nurses I work with are among the Millennial generation and we are the front-line of Long-Term Care. We make up a large percentage direct care workers.
I lean back against the wall, fighting tears. They’re tears of rage, but I really can’t afford to shed them right now. I am the caregiver and this isn’t the time to be emotional.
One day, I might have Mr. L or someone like him as my resident. His dignity will be left in my care, to either affirm and defend, or ignore and abuse. I wonder if he realizes that, as he rants and raves about the sins of my generation.
When you are weak and helpless, crippled and confused, I will be there, I think. And when you are my resident, then maybe you will see. Maybe you won’t…but either way,
I will take damn good care of you, whether you want me to or not. I will be your advocate and I will be your caregiver. I will fight as hard for your dignity as I fight for the gentleman down the hall, who I absolutely adore. You cannot change my compassion and you cannot change my professionalism.
I am a caregiver. I am a Millennial. And I think I am calm enough to go back into that room to finish making the bed.
When I do, it’s to see the strangest scene. Mr and Mrs L are glaring at each other; he looks surprised and she looks angry. They break it off when they realize I’m back.
“Oh, hello, sweetie,” Mrs. L says to me. “Do you know, you are my favorite aide. I don’t know how you do all the work you do. Especially,” she adds with a pointed look at her husband, “since you’re so young.”
I hate election time. I’ve come to absolutely despise all the political ads, all the fear-based rhetoric and emotional responses that seem to wash away all traces of common sense from both sides of the political spectrum. Working in a nursing home, it’s hard to get away from the political reality: TVs blare from every room and, supported as the Long-Term Care system is by the political one, it’s hard to forget that election season and its results could/will have a direct impact on my work environment.
I just can’t get away from this election, not even while I am passing out lunch trays to my folks. As I enter Mr. U’s room, the first thing I see is his TV on, set on a news channel where they are, once again, talking about the election. And in the room itself, fat stacks of political ads litter the bedside table, leaving nowhere to set his tray. As I sift through faces and promises, trying to make enough room for his lunch, I have to wonder: how did my residents get on all these mailing lists?
I’m so sick of this election and I can hear that frustration seeping into my voice as I announce the presence of food to Mr. U.
“Thanks,” he replies, never moving his gaze from the TV. “Hey, little girl, are you voting on Election Day?”
I nod. Politics is always a dangerous subject, but this isn’t exactly politics, I guess.
He frowns and shifts around slightly in his wheelchair. “Are you going to vote?” he repeats, a bit louder this time, every word slow and distinct…for all the wold as I am the one with hearing loss. Apparently, he wants a real answer: the kind spoken out loud. Suddenly I am reminded of all our previous conversations, conversations that reveal his still-fierce passion for social justice. His face is lined, his skin wrinkled and his body weak…but his eyes still shine brightly, all the more intense for the rest that has been forced upon him.
“Yes,” I say. “As much as I grumble, I’m not sure it would be…appropriate for me to pass. I mean, there have been too many people who have fought, died and sacrificed for my freedom for me to just sit on my ass at home.”
“That’s right,” he says approvingly. “Ignore the noise, forget all these negative ads and remember: what is your right will always be your responsibility. I’m gonna kick your butt if I find out you didn’t vote, little girl!”
As a CNA, I often feel powerless. I am at the bottom of the food chain: in a position to see many wrongs, but not in a position that makes it easy to correct those wrongs. There’s only so much I can do, and what is within my power often seems so small: nothing more than a trickle of water seeping between the stones of a dam. Why bother? Why keep speaking out, why keep writing and trying, breaking my heart as often as not? I am only one CNA, one American with one voice and one vote. What difference can I possibly make? How can my voice and my vote make any difference whatsoever?
The worst part about the systems and mindsets that make us feel powerless: they make us forget what little power we have. When we listen to the voices that whisper “Why bother?”, when we throw up our hands and walk away with our words all left unspoken, it is not one voice and one vote that has been silenced. It is nothing less than a victory for the systems and persons who would indeed make us powerless. Feeling powerless is the first step to actually becoming powerless. Perhaps it is not so much, this freedom of speech and this freedom to vote. Perhaps I am not so very important, but I am one of many.
Silence spreads like wildfire…but so does liberty. I am an American…I have the freedom to vote, to have my voice heard in the election of my leaders. No matter who is elected, I am not powerless. I will not be silenced or shackled, either because I am a woman or because I am “just” a CNA. My voice has weight and my opinion has value no matter my socioeconomic standing. I urge you, my fellow CNAs…do not be silent. Do not forget the power that has been bought for us by the sacrifices of those who have come before, and the sacrifices we ourselves have made. Always remember: what is our right is also our responsibility. We are not powerless and we will not be made to feel so anymore.
Go out and vote. Make your voice heard. Do not be swayed by fear or fancy rhetoric. Do your research and make up your own mind about which candidates you wish to be your leaders. And never, ever forget: no matter who wins this election, it does not absolve us of our responsibility to keep speaking out for those who cannot. What is our right will always be our responsibility…what wrongs we see, we must work to right. Vote for peace and prosperity, for compassion and communication, for empathy and intelligence. Vote for the whichever candidate you feel will be more willing to embrace the qualities we have learned to value most as caregivers of the elderly and disabled.
Do not surrender your ability to think for yourself to the politicians. Our freedom to vote is our birthright, so let it be your reason and not your fear that cast the ballot. Freedom…it’s far too precious to waste on an opinion that someone told you was the right thing.
Times like this, I can really see the connection between nursing homes and haunted houses. Both have claims of being the abode of ghosts and, more relevantly, both seem to have innumerable nooks for people to hide in. Well, maybe not hide in, but it does seem like every time I need help, there’s no one there to help me.
I peak around another door, finally finding the person I’ve been looking for.
“Hey, do you have a second?” I say, panting just a bit. It’s been nonstop all day and I’m exhausted. Perhaps if I was only working one shift today, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s another double I’m working today. I swear, even my bones ache tonight.
My hall partner looks up from bagging up a brief. “What do you want now?” she grumbles. She’s been a bit…less than friendly with me and looks like she’s running out of patience.
“I need your help to get Mrs. H to bed,” I tell her, glancing at the clock hanging on the wall and immediately wishing I hadn’t. It’s much later than I thought and we still haven’t started our lunches. At this rate, I’ll be clocking back in from lunch just in time to clock out for the shift.
“Mrs. H is a tiny woman,” she says crossly.
“Yeah, but she’s not standing right now. I’m going to have to use the lift to get her in bed and I need a spotter.” Seeing the hesitation on her face, I hasten to add: “I just need help putting her to bed, I can handle the rest from there.”
My partner does not look happy, but she agrees to come help me…although she takes me at my literal word, standing in the doorway while I hook up Mrs. H to the standing lift and maneuver her into the bed. Before I even have the chance to unhook Mrs. H, my partner turns to leave.
“Go to lunch when you’re done,” she calls over her shoulder.
It takes me a few minutes, but I get Mrs. H finished up and head off to the break room. I haven’t had a chance to sit down since my first shift lunch break…many, many hours ago.
Oh, but sweet mercy, it feels good to sit down! I’m too tired to eat, so I just sit back and attempt to become one with the chair. I feel like all my bones have turned to jelly; like I’m going to have to be poured out of this beautiful, gorgeous, wonderful seat.
It’s entirely possible that my brain has checked out for the night, long before my body can. I fish my phone out of my pocket and open Facebook. Even if I can’t eat, I need to do something or I’m going to fall asleep.
It’s sitting there at the top of my newsfeed, only twelve minutes old.
“Worst night ever. Partner is so damn by-the-book and can’t do anything by herself. Seriously, if you’re so lazy or weak, you’re not cut out for this job.”
Twelve minutes old. She must have posted this right after she left Mrs. H’s room. It isn’t until the phone starts to jump in my hand that I realize I’m shaking with anger. What the…I mean, come on! Facebook! By-the-book? Not cut out for this job? Weak because I asked for help with a resident who, while normally one-assist, needed lifting tonight? Would she have rather I took the chance of injuring myself or Mrs. H?
CNAs have one of the highest rates of back injuries among any other profession. Why in the world would we continue to solo-lift residents who are either require two-assist transfers or a mechanical lift?
Minstrel hit the nail on the head with her latest post. There is a “Macho” culture that has sprung up among CNAs—borne, no doubt, from the chronic short-staffed circumstances. Asking for help (and waiting for help) eats up time…time we quite honestly do not have. Every aide is therefore left with a choice: lift and take a chance on hurting yourself or go get help and fall even more behind.
You can start this job with good intentions, decide you’ll never lift a two-assist. That decision wavers the first time you see another aide lift a resident and walk away—apparently unharmed. It crumbles some more when you hear other aides rank each other by their toughness: so-and-so can lift the heaviest resident on her own. Now that’s a good aide!
That decision is left by the way side when you realize that you do not have time to things the “right way” and you take a short-cut. You lift a resident who is explicitly a two-assist. You don’t raise the bed up to change someone. You change the bariatric resident by yourself.
Now you are a good aide, a tough aide. Now you’ve earned the respect of your fellow CNAs.
And when your body succumbs to the strain, when you feel something pop or pull, when you can’t straighten your back without gasping in pain…you pick yourself back up and continue on. You grumble about the conditions that led to this injury, but you are still a good aide, a tough aide and no injury is keeping you down. You don’t have time to be hurt. You’ve seen other CNAs work injured and sick and you applauded them for their toughness. Time to prove your own.
There is, shall we say, an expectation of injury and an attitude of invulnerability at play among CNAs, two ideas that should be contradictory but are held together nonetheless. There is this mentality among Long-Term Care aides, a mentality that says by allowing ourselves to be injured, we have shown ourselves to be weak. Perhaps this is not the right phrasing. Maybe a better way to say this is by allowing ourselves to be affected by our injuries, we have shown ourselves to be sub-par CNAs, weak and “not cut out for this work”.
It’s a tough job, but we’re tougher. Those CNAs who refuse to lift, or who ask for help…these CNAs are mocked and, dare I say, bullied for their caution.
Very little of this, I’m sure, is intended to be malicious. Solo-lifting, after all, ensures that our residents are toileted when they need to be and put to bed when they ask. It ensures that they do not suffer from this broken system. Refusing to solo-lift can be construed as placing your wellbeing above that of a resident…and that’s just selfish.
Whatever the reasons and justifications of any party, the fact remains: the health of CNAs is not treated as a priority…not by management, not by the policy makers and not by the CNAs themselves.
This is a problem. True: the conditions of Long-Term Care are stacked so that injuries among CNAs are high. Yes, the resident to aide ratios are so high that doing things the right way slows you down, very often to the point that you are the last of your shift to leave every single day.
I am a CNA and I do not find it acceptable that I live in expectation of injury. I do not find it acceptable that I have to make a choice between harm done to a resident and harm done to myself. Being “by the book” is my quiet protest of the over-worked conditions of Long-Term Care. If we cut corners and finish on time, but document that we did things ” the right way”, then our complaints of being overwhelmed can be shuffled to the side. “What do you mean, you can’t care for 12 residents? You do it just fine according to my spreadsheet and your charting!”
By solo-lifting two assists, we are not proving our toughness as CNAs: we are enabling the system to exploit us.
Take care of your health. No one else is going to do it for you. This system is not set up to treat the health of CNAs as a precious resource, anymore than it is set up to treat the CNA as a valuable member of the team.
I do not solo-lift and I try to cut as few corners as I can. It is not because I am lazy or weak or not cut out for this job. It is not because I like seeing my residents wait for care. It is because this gesture is one of the few resources at my disposal to show why culture change in Long-Term Care is needed. It is my defiance of a system that exploits me and will throw me away if I break beyond repair.
As an individual, I am easy to ignore and my gesture of defiance easy to overlook. Strength comes in numbers. If every aide refused to cut corners and committed themselves to being “by the book” when it comes to lifting…well, now that would be hard to overlook.
I’d go so far as to say that would be impossible to ignore.
The first time I went job-hunting as a CNA, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But that was then and now? Now I at least have a clue. Two years experience has at least given me that.
“Hello, this is _____ Healthcare, ____ speaking. How may I help you?”
So far, so good. The woman’s voice is pleasant and friendly and she doesn’t sound like she ready to rip somebody’s head off.
“Hello, my name is May and I was wondering if you could tell me what your base pay is for CNAs? Um, on first shift?”
There’s a small silence on the other end of the line, then the other woman says, “Give me just a second and I’ll find out for you. Are you looking for a job?”
“Yes,” I respond, still marveling at my decision. It’s been a long time coming, but it still doesn’t feel real. This isn’t an “I’m so fed up I’m reminding myself I have options” kind of call, such as I’ve pulled in the past…no this is the genuine article. I’m leaving. On some level, it feels like a betrayal to feel so relieved.
The receptionist’s voice cuts across my thoughts, pulling me back to the present. The figure she names is decent, slightly below average national pay, but more than my current pay…especially since my current pay includes shift differential! Hello savings account, you might not remember me! I force myself to calm down. The other place I called offered similar pay and a crap-ton of stutters and excuses instead of an answer to the next question on my script. Speaking of…
“And can you tell me what your resident-to-aide ratios are?”
The other woman laughs. “At the risk of repeating myself, give me a second to check.”
This time, the pause is longer. I can’t help but spring to my feet and start pacing the room. My thoughts pound out in rhythm to my steps: please, please, please. For years now, I’ve heard the same mantra thrown at me, “If you leave, you’ll never find as good a place as this.” At first it was reassuring. Then it was annoying and now I’m praying that it’s not true. I don’t want to have to decide between the money it will take to have a good life and ratios that allow me to take pride in my work. Please, please, please.
“Well, our staffing person is not answering the phone, but I just talked to one of the CNAs and she said she’s got eight people today, if that helps.”
“That’s very helpful, thank you,” I reply, trying and failing to keep my glee out of my voice. “Just one more question: are you hiring?”
It’s dangerous to accept a job sight- unseen, so I continue to check my rising excitement until I actually walk through the doors of the facility the next day. To my surprise, the receptionist recognizes me from our phone conversation as soon as I ask for an application. She’s seems as friendly in person as she did on the phone. That’s good.
As I fill out the application, I take time to look around me. It’s not quite as opulent as my current place, but there’s a friendly functionality at work. There’s also no odor that I can detect, no harsh scent of ammonia and urine. I can see aides moving quickly on the halls and some nod at me or wave. They look busy, but not hassled. A few residents are lined up by a nearby nurse’s station and I examine them closely. Men and women both are neatly shaved and groomed, there are no food stains on their faces and they all appear engaged with their surroundings. Quite a few of them are looking at me quite as intently as I’m looking at them. I hand in my application, wondering if I’m about to become their caregiver.
The receptionist asks me if I want to schedule my first interview for today, warning that it might be a bit of a wait. I say yes. I want to get this ball rolling, get this transition over with.
As I wait, I do the last thing on my list. It’s not something I’ve pulled off the Internet or asked other aides about, unlike everything else on my list or script. This is something I came up with on my own, a pattern I’ve noticed in my own experience. I like everything else I’ve seen and I almost don’t want to look. But as I wait, I walk up to a resident and start talking to them. Our conversation is mostly an exchange of names, but it gets me close enough to the wheelchair that nobody looks at me like I’m crazy when I squat down to put myself more or less on eye-level with the resident in the wheelchair. Nobody even notices when I duck my head down for a quick look at the underside of the wheelchair.
See, when you’re short-staffed or overwhelmed, somethings slip through the cracks–things like washing wheelchairs, for example. As an aide, I’m…not exactly okay with this, but I understand it. You can only do as much as you can, and when you’re running late on time and short on energy, primary care comes first. Better to make sure your people are clean than to make sure the wheelchair looks nice.
We’ve all had those shifts. Everyone, no matter how good the facility, has had that kind of day, and a good facility can rally. If one shift slips, the others can still catch up around it. The wheelchair gets washed the next go-round and all’s well.
But if that facility is in crisis mode and has been for a while, if every single shift is short…there’s no catching up. That wheelchair goes unwashed shift after shift, week after week. There’s a big difference between a bad day once in a while and a string of bad days; I’ve learned to tell the difference in the state of the wheelchairs.
And this one is mostly clean. There’s a bit of grime and dust on it, but it’s only a single layer. There aren’t layers upon layers of bad days coating the underside of the wheelchair.
Okay, I can work with that. I don’t expect perfection, but I’ve come from a place that’s been in crisis mode for almost a year and I can’t take it anymore. I’ve learned too many bad habits, too many shortcuts and there’s a bitterness in the air I just can’t breathe anymore. I need a clean break, a new place to make a stand…and I think I’ve found it here.
“I hate training!” says my coworker. “I really, really hate it. I mean, all it does is slow you down! I can’t get my work done while somebody’s following me around like a puppy. It’s just a hassle.”
“I get your point,” I say slowly…and I do. I really do. Training slows you down. You’ve got to stop and explain everything that has become muscle memory or second nature to you. You’ve got to watch people try to do things the wrong way, the way you’ve learned is no good. You have to hear all these “new ideas” that you’ve heard a thousand times before. You’ve got to watch the shock roll through the new person, as they stumble upon the grief, the horror and the frustrations that still eat away at you.
You’ve got to be patient.
And that is much easier said than done! It’s hard to be patient; it’s hard to let go of that frantic timer inside our heads. It’s hard to take the time to explain everything the right way. It’s just plain hard to find time, period. And it’s a bit discouraging: to take all the time out for the newbies, to be patient and then to have so many newbies just walk away…often without giving notice.
All that time and energy you invested in them: gone and all for nothing. Oh well. Try again and better luck next time.
Is it any wonder that so many aides just say: “Screw the next time! Why bother?” Yeah…I get her point. Training is quite a hassle, when you put it like that. And yet–and yet, even while I get her point, I can’t agree with her.
Attitudes like that are the reason so many new aides are left to flounder. It’s sink or swim in the nursing home; if you’re not perfect right off the bat it’s out the door with you! How many potential good aides do we bury under the never-ending landslide? How many potential good aides walk away in a fit of frustration?
How many potential advocates do we silence in our own impatience?
Yeah, training takes time and energy…time and energy we often don’t actually have. True, not every newbie I train is going to stick with it; not every newbie I train is actually going to be worth the effort of training. But for the ones that are good, for the ones who stay, the ones who will become advocates and caregivers of quality…
Oh, yeah. You are definitely worth the hassle. Please come. Please bear with me as I try to snatch the time to dance on the ropes of long term care so you don’t fall.