Category Archives: empathy

What I Can

 

 

Rose

 

Old People’s Home
– W.H. Aulden

All are limitory, but each has her own
nuance of damage. The elite can dress and decent themselves,
  are ambulant with a single stick, adroit
to read a book all through, or play the slow movements of
  easy sonatas. (Yet, perhaps their very
carnal freedom is their spirit’s bane: intelligent
  of what has happened and why, they are obnoxious
to a glum beyond tears.) Then come those on wheels, the average
  majority, who endure T.V. and, led by
lenient therapists, do community-singing, then
  the loners, muttering in Limbo, and last
the terminally incompetent, as improvident,
  unspeakable, impeccable as the plants
they parody. (Plants may sweat profusely but never
  sully themselves.) One tie, though, unites them: all
appeared when the world, though much was awry there, was more
  spacious, more comely to look at, it’s Old Ones
with an audience and secular station. Then a child,
  in dismay with Mamma, could refuge with Gran
to be revalued and told a story. As of now,
  we all know what to expect, but their generation
is the first to fade like this, not at home but assigned
  to a numbered frequent ward, stowed out of conscience
as unpopular luggage.

As I ride the subway
  to spend half-an-hour with one, I revisage
who she was in the pomp and sumpture of her hey-day,
  when week-end visits were a presumptive joy,
not a good work. Am I cold to wish for a speedy
  painless dormition, pray, as I know she prays,
that God or Nature will abrupt her earthly function?

The poem that Lynn shared in her post a couple of weeks ago inspired me to start looking at poetry again.  This one in particular really spoke to me today.  The lines of this poem match up with the faces in my head.  I think that’s why I like it so much.  It puts into words something that I’ve never been sure how to verbalize- how do I help people who’ve lost so much?  Each line brings to mind a resident to match it. 

Mrs. E- a stroke took her sight, and old age took her strength.  Every time I help her with a shower, she apologizes for taking up so much of my time.  Mrs. A doesn’t like my help- her mind is going, but while she still has her body she wants me to know it.  Whenever I forget, she’s quick to remind me, “I can do it.”

A resident whose name I can’t remember anymore.  “Would you like to go to Happy Hour?”  A blank stare at the wall- no.  “Would you like to watch some TV then?”  An eye roll and a shrug- yes.  I turn the TV on, and change it to the channel she asks for.  I’d like to stay and cheer her up.  But I have two call lights going off, and a shower to give before dinner.  The stare has been transferred from the wall to the TV.

Mrs. F.  I like to think that she and I have a bond- she might be losing most of her function, but her sense of humor is still intact.  After dinner she leaves to round the building in her wheelchair, and I let her go.  It’s better than keeping her cooped up on the hall with nothing to do. 

The geri-chair group on the Skilled unit.  After dinner, we group them around the TV until we can put them to bed.  Mrs. W sits and watches the TV, and next to her Mrs. K mutters nonsense, the same phrases repeated over and over.

Sometimes I find myself forgetting that they used to be different.  I’ve only known them like this, and in a way, I guess that makes it easier?  I don’t have to remember, to look at their faces and see what used to be.  But if I pay attention, I can see glimpses that still shine through.

Mr. J used to be a farmer and every once in a while he’ll tell me he can’t go to bed because he needs to check on the cows.  Mrs. F isn’t the person she used to be, but she absolutely lights up every Thursday evening when her grandson visits.  It’s the longest I’ve ever seen her sit in one place without getting bored.

Mrs. V used to let me practice my Spanish with her, before she stopped walking down to the dining room.  Mrs. M likes to chat about crime shows.  Mr. B likes to discuss logic and human nature. 

They’re still there.  Behind the eyes of each of my residents sits a person trying to hold onto what’s left of their life.  I find it hard to deal with, and I get to go home at the end of the shift.  They don’t.  If I’m burnt out, I can’t imagine how they must feel.

My favorite quote comes from the book Unwind by Neal Shusterman.  The book itself has nothing to do with long term care, but this one quote has always stuck with me- “Love the ones you can.  Pray for the rest.”  I’m trying to make this my work philosophy.  Each day, I am given a group of people to care for, and for that day, they are mine to love.  I can’t do everything.  I can’t make legs work or memories come back or pain go away.  But I can smile.  I can listen.  I can look and actually SEE.  I might not be able to do everything, I can do SOMETHING.  And then I can go home and pray about the rest of it. 

 

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. 

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. 

Respect Your Elders

Sunflower May

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.”

The Savvy Resident’s Guide

DSC00999

 

Yang

Empathy is at the heart of caregiving. While the ability to understand and share the feelings of others has an intuitive element, a natural byproduct of genuine compassion, this awareness can be developed and enhanced through thought and imagination. Simply put, we can use what we know about another person to put ourselves in their shoes.

As I read through Dr. Eleanor Feldman Barbera’s nursing home primer, The Savvy Resident’s Guide, I found myself doing exactly that: imagining what it would be like to be an elder about to enter a nursing home. The book, subtitled Everything You Want to Know About Your Nursing Home Stay, But Were Afraid to Ask touches on all the basic topics, including what to expect when you first arrive, working with staff, managing medications, your relationship with medical and social work staff, dietary issues, rehab, activities, money issues and lodging complaints.

Throughout the book, “Dr. El” offers practical advice on everything from the best way to request assistance from care staff to techniques that help you stay motivated during rehab sessions to the best way to talk to your doctor. Dr. El keeps the tone light, often illustrating her points with personal interactions from her own experience. A common theme running through each chapter is that as a resident you are not powerless and that, in fact, there is a great deal that you can do to improve the quality of your experience in a nursing home. The book is an easy read, literally an easy read, with its large print format.

There is very little in The Savvy Resident’s Guide that could be considered new information for experienced caregivers. But in a way, for us at least, that’s the point. These issues are so woven into the fabric of our work experience that they become second nature to us and sometimes we lose sight of the fact that what might be obvious to us might not be as clear to someone else. A guide such as this, geared for new residents and their families, can help us become more aware of the basic kinds of information new residents need to help them cope with what can often be an overwhelming psychological adjustment.

In another way, as Dr. El invites us to in the foreword, the book helps us step into the new resident’s shoes because it reminds us of when we as caregivers were new to the system. The whirl of faces and personalities, the jargon, the strange cultural norms and customs of the facility and care unit, were all things we had to adjust to. Now, with a little imagination, we can put ourselves in the place someone who might not be feeling well to start, who perhaps has gone through a sustain period of loss and now has to adjust to this strange new world. Our empathy can begin even before the resident enters the front door.

Dr. Eleanor Feldman Barbera is an accomplished speaker and consultant with 20 years’ experience as psychologist in long-term care. Her blog, My Better Nursing Home can be read here. Dr. El is also a regular contributor to McKnight’s LTC News. The Savvy Resident’s Guide is available on Amazon as a paperback or as Kindle book here.

Small Gestures Go A Long Way

Sunflower  May

This would so much easier if there were tears, screaming or something. Hell, at this point I’d take a nightmare and violent confusion. I know how to soothe nightmares. I’m good at chasing the monsters away.
I’m not good at this.
I don’t know how to make this better, this lingering listlessness, the utter lack of energy and interest. It’s not like I’ve never seen this before: depression is wide-spread in the nursing homes. Depression is a hard thing to treat, harder still to manage in the time-crunch of Long-Term Care…the CNAs quite literally do not have the time or emotional energy to coax every one of our residents out of the deadened state of despair every time they fall into it. The sad truth is, when a resident refuses to get out of bed, that’s one less person you have to try to get back into bed later. It’s easy to let slide. It is, after all, the resident’s right to refuse. You can’t make them get up and coaxing takes time. Sometimes a lot of time. You say “I’ll get them next time,” and the next time things are so hectic that you don’t even remember your whispered promise. Eventually, you realize that you’ve let your depressed resident stay in bed for the tenth shift running…but by now it’s a habit, both for you and the resident.
I’ve seen it a hundred times, and I’ve had to turn away, had to prioritize my other residents who really wanted to get up and interact with the world over the one who continually refuses to leave their room…the one who just wants to sleep.
Not this time. I can’t make Mrs. N get up, but I can’t just leave her to wallow in her own regrets and despair.

“I’m not leaving you like this,” I say suddenly. “I’m not giving up on you, okay? I really don’t care if you appreciate it or not. I’m not giving up on you. Ok, then think, May. What helps alleviate depression?”
Sunlight.
I rush to the window and twitch the curtains open. Light floods the room, chasing away the shadows and warming the air. A thousand dust-motes swirl in the golden beams. Well, I feel better, at least…strange how quickly the sunshine can work on human physiology. Mrs. N stirs and mutters. One eye opens, just a tiny sliver and then it’s squeezed shut with a force that only a person can only manage when they’re awake.
Well, that’s sunlight. I can’t think of anything else to do and as much as I like to shut the door and say “I’m not leaving her alone,” I can’t abandon my other residents. Also, if I push too hard, I could unravel any progress I’ve made.
I lean over her and squeeze her limp hand. “I’ll be back,” I tell her.
It’s a busy day (as per normal), so it isn’t until a couple of hours later that I’m able to slip back into Mrs. N’s room to check on her. She’s still laying motionless in her bed, but she’s oriented to the window and her eyes are open. She’s staring out at the green grass, the trees and the flowers. As I watch, a tear slips down her face.
What’s it like for her? She knows that even if she musters the energy to get up, even if she goes outside, she can’t do anything help. She can’t run across the grass, she can’t reach up and touch the trees. She can’t pick the flowers.
Flowers.
I rush from the room, down the hall and out the front door. Thank God for landscaping, because I don’t have to search very long to find what I was looking for.
I head back inside, back to the room that remains gloomy, in spite of the warm sunlight still pouring through the window.
“Here,” I say loudly, ignoring the way she slams her eyes closed and pretends to sleep. I set the handful of flowers I picked down on her bedside. “These are for you.”
She’s so startled that she drops the act mid-snore. I hear a call-light go off down the hall and I reluctantly turn to leave.
“Hey, little girl.”
I turn back. Mrs. N is clutching all of my flowers in her hands.
“Bring me some more tomorrow?”
“Oh, you bet,” I agree softly.

Those of us with whole bodies and sound minds, I think we often forget to appreciate the simple things. Things like opening the curtains to let in light, going outside for a walk when we feel blue. The natural world is bound up tightly in our psyche…replaced by the sterile environment of a hospital-like nursing home, is it any wonder that depression abounds in nursing homes? We can’t give our residents back everything they’ve lost: their mobility, their independence, their careers and loved ones.
By contrast, it’s a simple thing to bring a bit of nature to those who cannot go out to nature…to open a curtain, hang up pictures of landscapes, take them outside for five minutes turn on the Nature Channel, or bring a handful of flowers to a depressed resident who won’t leave her room. But simple doesn’t mean insignificant and small gestures often mean the world to someone who has learned the hard way not to take anything for granted.

There is something about nature that speaks to our primal nature, that has the ability to soothe us even after we lose our words or our will. There’s something about natural light that makes us feel at home, something about flowers that delights us. These primal instincts are a caregiver’s best friend, if you learn how to harness them.

The Things They Never Tell You

Sunflower  May

Here’s something that’s not quite––or not at all––a newsflash: human beings are sexual creatures.
Here’s something that’s (an often quite hilarious) newsflash: old people are still sexual creatures.
They still notice and remark on certain aspects of life that maybe we young folk would prefer they do not. Occasionally, we young folk are the ones they are noticing and remarking about.

At times this attention is sweet, like the nine marriage proposals I’ve received in the course of my career–only three of which were delivered in a location other than the shower room.
Or the time I went to wake up a resident and was subjected to a long, loud verbal tirade about how I was thoroughly unpleasant person and he was his own boss. This tirade derailed the instant he opened his eyes…prompting him to interrupt himself with “My God, you’re beautiful!” From that moment on, he treated every word out of my mouth like Gospel truth, to be obeyed immediately. I admit it: I quite enjoyed being treated like the Queen of the Universe. Being told that I was beautiful enough to derail a full-fledged, would-make-a-toddler-jealous temper tantrum didn’t hurt my confidence any either.
Then there was the time that I noticed a resident’s pant leg needed adjusting. When I bent over in front of her to fix it, I ended up getting a reminder that not everybody born before the 1960’s necessarily conforms to the Norman Rockwell image of heterosexuality. I will say that of all the passes ever made at me, hers was tasteful–far more in the nature of a compliment on my, er, physique than objectifying my body for her viewing pleasure. That woman had game.

∞oOo∞

And then, of course, there’s the far less enjoyable kind of attention. This comes in many forms, from overhearing a group of male residents ranking the female employees by sexiness, to outright asking me to climb into bed with them. You’ve got the “handsy” old men, the incessant dirty jokes, the lewd comments, the creepy stares…and the list goes on. I’m sure every aide out there has had an experience of some kind or another of this nature.
There was a time when I cleaning up an extra large BM that was, in spite of my best efforts, just getting anywhere. I became distracted from the mess when I felt the resident’s hand on my leg, slowly creeping further up. When I told him to remove his hand, he just looked at me, smiled and said: “What, don’t you like it?”
“Are you going to take your hands off me?” I asked him calmly. “Or do I have to use my hands to get yours  off me?” To illustrate my point, I held up my gloved hand…which just happened to be dripping BM. To anyone who says that there’s nothing like cold water to curb a libido, I can only guess that you’ve tried using BM. I’ve never seen anyone back off quite so fast as he did, or stay backed off for quite as long. I hardly needed to report the incident to my supervisor, whose first comment was that I “had managed the situation rather handily“.

Of course, it’s not just the residents who put on such displays of sexism and lechery. I learned very quickly to wary of certain visitors. I’ve had a visitor try to get me in trouble with my boss because I told him to keep his hands to himself. He was always trying to touch the female aides, especially trying to put his hand on a shoulder or upper arm and “steer” us around by squeezing. I objected to being touched so frequently and familiarly without my consent, especially after I politely asked him to stop. Unfortunately for me, he was one of those men who have trouble to concept of “No Means No” and began complaining to my supervisors that I was “rude”, “mean” and “hateful”.
Unfortunately for him, I’m fairly eloquent with written words and not afraid to defend myself.

Nor should you come to the conclusion that it’s only the men who make unwanted sexual advances upon staff. While I have noticed that some of the female residents do as well, they are far fewer…in no small part, I think, to the cultural conditioning that encouraged men to be aggressive and women to be passive. Also, there’s the same mentality at work that leads some of our residents to treat their caregivers as “the help”, instead of a skilled worker. When you’re perceived as standing a rung below them on the social ladder, many people feel as though they’ve been given a pass to act as they want to, without regard to your feelings.
But it exists still, with or without the spotlight. All the crap women have deal with in our still amazingly sexist culture, with a side of proximity. There is, shall we say, an intimacy of the caregiver-resident relationship that often exasperates the “normal” harassment. Personal space boundaries are in a constant state of flux in Long-Term Care. You’re often operating in what Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist who pioneered the field of proxemics, called “intimate distance” (6-18 inches between you and the other person). This close proximity influences the dynamics between you and the resident, especially if that resident has dementia. They either react with hostility, “What is this stranger doing in my personal space?” or an assumption of familiarity, “She’s right next to me, so we must be close.” Or “She’s leaning over me, so she must be open to my attentions”. Inhibitions are lowered or forgotten, causing many people with dementia to act without the social filter. Is it any wonder then, when they make a move and react with confusion when they are shut down?
Of course, empathy in this situation is a tricky thing. No matter how well you’ve managed to put yourself in the resident’s shoes, how much you understand the factors that lead them to act as they do––you cannot deny the validity of your emotions. Sexual harassment is a demeaning experience, even if the perpetrator is your resident. We can’t just shrug it off and say, “Oh, well, it’s not worth the fuss,”. If we aren’t taught–or don’t learn–how to shut down such advances with compassion and firmness, we only encourage more of the same behavior, making life harder for ourselves and all our residents.

Either way, it’s one of the things they never tell you about. It’s one of the areas that we are, for the most part, told to report to our supervisors and then left to figure out on our own. How do you deal with the handsy residents, the lewd comments and other objectifying behaviors without demeaning the resident who is exhibiting the behavior? It’s one of those ethical obstacle-courses we deal with every day.

A Personal Question

Sunflower May

One of the recurring questions I heard at the Pioneer Network Conference earlier this year concerned how CNAs and other direct care workers refer to their residents/patients/clients.
I heard a variety of opinions, ranging from “Absolutely no pet names ever, it’s undignified and disrespectful” to “What does it matter?”
I don’t remember which individual it was who finally put forth the question: “Well, what does the resident think about this? Does the resident mind aides using terms of endearment?”
When I was asked for my opinion, I just shrugged and said: “I guess it depends.”

Having worked for years in Long-Term Care, this wasn’t the first time I’ve run into this issue and I doubt it will be the last. It’s one of those loaded topic, where everyone involved has surprisingly strong opinions. I think people lay bits of themselves on the line with this question…maybe it’s one of those questions that you can’t ask without thinking: “What do I want? What are my wishes and will they be respected if I can’t enforce them?”
My answer to the question is quite often met with confusion and occasionally disdain, but the truth is, I really do think it simply depends. You can’t answer this question with an absolute…it’s not that kind of question.

Some people like being called “buddy”, or “honey”, “sugar” or some other term of endearment. Some do not. Some go off the wall if person A calls them “sweetie”, but smile happily when person B calls them the same thing. (That’s me, by the way, squarely in category 3.) Residents are much the same way…being, you know, people. Individual human beings with unique preferences.

Here’s another big shocker: CNAs are also numbered among humanity. We’re people too. We each bring a different set of life experience and habits to the job. Some aides use pet names, some don’t. In my experience, good aides fall on both sides of the line. There doesn’t seem to be a one-to-one correlation.
As for me, it just slips out. It’s slightly odd, but I slip into a more Southern accent while at work (a benefit of living in multiple places is having multiple accents to switch between). “Honey”, “buddy” and “sweetie” just slide out with the Southern twang and none of my residents seem to mind…I’ve actually had residents complain if I call them only by their given names, with no endearments to follow. In front of State, no less.

Of course, I have to tailor my habits to my residents preferences. I’ve had residents ask me not to call them “honey” or “buddy” or “sweetie”––these residents are few and far between, but I’ve had them. Some prefer terms of endearment in private, one-on-one interactions and more formal modes of address in public settings like the dining room. I do my best to accommodate their wishes and preferences.
In fact, one of the very first things I’ll do when I have a new resident is to introduce myself and ask what they want me to call them. Do they want to be Mrs. P, or Mrs. Betty or just Betty? Then I play it by ear: after the initial unease, how formal is this resident in their interactions with others, with me? Do they respond better to jokes or serious discussion? How much humor on my part is tolerated? What do they call me?

In the end, this question of terms of endearment is one that I do not believe can be answered in a blanket policy. It’s a personal question needing a personal answer…and no one can supply except the resident. Even when the resident is so out of their head with dementia that they cannot remember the year or recognize their children, still they have the right to decide for themselves what they prefer. They may not be able to answer in words, but they always answer.
You just need to train yourself to hear the unspoken words hanging in the air. Don’t assume you know what another person wants. Listen before you speak for them.