Category Archives: Stress & Burnout

A Not so Obvious Picture at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans

Bob Goddard

In early August, a disturbing news story broke about the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, my old workplace.  After an investigation by the State of Michigan’s Attorney General’s office, eleven former employees – all direct care workers – were charged with falsifying medical records. The caregivers charted that they had checked on members (the Veterans Home refers to the residents living there as members) while surveillance video shows that these checks were not done. In Michigan, falsifying medical records by a health care provider is a felony, punishable by up to four years in prison and a fine of up to $5000.

The investigation followed a scathing February 2016 report by the Michigan Auditor General. According to that report, the home failed to properly investigate allegations of abuse and neglect, took too long to fill prescriptions and operated with inadequate staffing levels. Both the Attorney General’s investigation and the audit came almost three years after the State privatized the entire direct care workforce at the home, thus replacing a dedicated, stable direct care workforce with contract workers from a demonstrably unreliable agency, J2S.

The eleven workers charged by Attorney General’s office were employed by J2S. That company was replaced by two other contract agencies last year after J2S repeatedly fell short of adequately staffing the facility.

As we have come to expect in media coverage of anything related to long term care, the local media treatment of this story displayed a superficial understanding of how a long term care facility operates and relied on sensational wording to make the story more compelling. In the process, the reporting presented a misleading picture of how caregivers go about their work. While reporters expressed outrage over the quality of care at the home, they seemed clueless regarding what it takes to make good care happen. I think it would be useful to correct this and offer a different perspective.

In one report following the announcement of the felony charges against the caregivers, a local TV reporter assured viewers that the Attorney General’s investigation “paints a pretty obvious picture of the situation” and concluded that bringing the charges does two things: “it holds people accountable for what they did,” and second, “I can guarantee you tonight at the home for veterans they’re going to be doing their member checks.”

The assumption in that last statement is that fear is a necessary and effective motivator in providing good care. This is a common fallacy among observers unfamiliar with the nature and practice of caregiving. You cannot get genuine compassion and caring from fear.

Yes, as our visibly self-satisfied watchdog reporter suggested, I’m guessing “those member checks” were indeed “being done tonight,” but as I will explain below, that form of diligence has little do with the actual quality of care at the home.

The media reports and statements from the Attorney General gave the impression that these hourly checks were at the heart of what caregivers do. They are not. In fact, the hourly checks are superimposed over normal care routines. In a typical institutional setting, each caregiver is assigned a group, usually ten or more residents depending on the shift, unit and facility, and is charged with completing a whole series tasks including assisting with the residents’ personal hygiene, bathing, grooming, dressing, toileting, bowel care, skin care, turning positioning, transferring, ambulating, transport, serving meals and feeding patients, offering fresh water and snacks, take vital signs, make beds, keep the residents’ room clean, answer calls lights and respond to requests, record intake and output information, observe and report changes in residents’ physical and mental condition. And of course, document these activities via flowsheets and other similar forms. The location sheet is one of these forms.

It’s important to understand that given the direct care staffing levels in a typical long term care facility, and this certainly includes the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, assigned caregiver workloads are rarely possible to complete – not to the standards set forth by regulators, facility policy, and customary nursing practices, let alone family and public expectations.  This means caregivers are constantly engaged in a form of care triage, made necessary because no one above them in the Long Term Care hierarchy, including policy makers and legislators, seem able to provide the resources necessary to do the job according to standards. Either they lack adequate awareness of the problem or are simply not willing to make the hard choices. By default, this is left to the direct care worker.

Given the inadequacies of the system, the best a caregiver can do is to arrange these various tasks in some order that makes the most sense for everyone in the group, taking into account the unit’s mealtimes and other facility routines. While a good caregiver tries to plan ahead, working with human beings means that unexpected needs routinely arise and no can anticipate everything.  Each shift becomes a unique time puzzle that the caregiver must solve if the residents are going to receive the best care he or she can provide. But the puzzle is dynamic, the “pieces” change according to the immediate needs and expectations of residents, coworkers and management. The caregiver must continually adapt his or her time organization to ever changing circumstances and priorities. In essence, the caregiver spends the shift involved in perpetual problem solving with ethical implications.

At the Veteran’s Home, the check sheets are kept behind the nurses station while the majority of care is conducted in the members’ bedrooms and bathing areas. So, to properly document the checks consistently in a timely manner requires this absurdity: the already overwhelmed direct care worker must pause care and walk away from the members for whom she is providing care for the purpose of putting her initials on a sheet of paper that indicates she knows the location of the members she was just with. This may provide the facility with documentary evidence and meet an institutional need, but it does not necessarily address the needs of the members.

If we are truly concerned about the quality of care for our veterans, the real question is not whether or not the checks were properly documented, but what the caregivers were actually doing when they indicated they made the checks. Were they in the shower room with a member or making sure an unsteady member wasn’t tumbling off a commode or perhaps transporting a member to a therapy appointment? Were they in the middle of assisting a member with his meal or helping a coworker transfer a 350 pound man from his bed to his wheelchair? Were they responding to a member’s urgent request for help? Were they redirecting a confused member for the tenth time in the last five minutes? Were they assisting another caregiver who was trying to manage a combative member? Were they comforting a member who was experiencing some kind emotional turmoil? Were they on their way to nurses’ station to get the location checks clipboard when they noticed a call light? Were they with a sick member, maybe dealing with copious amounts of diarrhea or vomit? Were they cleaning up a spill that presented a fall hazard? Were they speaking with the family of a member regarding their loved ones’ care and status? Were they holding a dying member in their arms? Or perhaps they were engaged in a member’s post-mortem care.

I will leave it to the Attorney General and media reporters to decide to which of these activities caregivers ought to interrupt so that they might properly document the checks – and presumably stay out of prison.

Let’s be clear, if the workers were sitting behind the desk or off the unit or otherwise not engaged with the members when these checks were supposed to be made, then our sympathy and support for them evaporates. Not because they didn’t make the checks properly, but because they weren’t with the members and on task. Even in bad work environments, caregivers are ethically and morally obligated to the use the time and resources that they do have to do the best they can for the residents.

Of course, it could be argued that the hourly checks provide a more systematic way of accounting for the members’ location and condition. Regular checks ensure that no one gets forgotten.  It seems obvious, right?

However, when you start to look at how caregivers actually gather information and keep tabs on the members in their group, the hourly checks take secondary importance. Caregivers are routinely provided with a “cheat sheet,” a one or two page list of all the members in their assigned group. The cheat sheet includes basic care information for each member. The caregivers carry these sheets with them and will refer to them throughout the shift. Even caregivers who are familiar with the members in their group will often use the cheat sheet as an aid to help organize their time and, of course, to help make sure no one is forgotten.

Given the real needs of the members, the fact that the checks are hourly is completely arbitrary. The reality is that some members don’t need to be checked that often and some leave the grounds for long periods – as is their right, it’s a home not a prison. Other members may need to be checked even more frequently depending on their particular physical and mental status.  A lot can happen in 59 minutes and the hourly checks can no way guarantee the safety and well-being of all members. The best way to keep members safe and their immediate needs met is to have well informed, well supported, on-task caregivers. And by well-informed, we mean caregivers who are thoroughly familiar with the members – not just with their current medical status, but who they are as individuals, their daily needs, preferences, and habits.

By threatening caregivers with prison sentences and the like, we can make them jump through hoops and give the appearance that good care is being done, but we should wonder what is actually being missed while they’re putting on this show for us. As our watchdog reporter implied, fear will elicit a sure response. But with fear, the issue becomes not about the real quality of your work and how those in your care are experiencing it, it’s about how you think it’s being perceived by those who can punish you. Under siege, our actions are informed not by our sense of right and wrong nor even by common sense, but by the assessments and attitudes of those who are judging us. When those assessments and attitudes are based on faulty perceptions – which is often the case in long term care and certainly the case here – our priorities become skewed and we add yet another obstacle to good care.

Fear won’t take caregivers into the places where genuine compassion and caring will go. As a motivator, it’s a weak and insufficient substitute for the truly powerful motivations that result in the best care possible. On the other side of those closed doors and privacy curtains where caregivers engage members and actual care takes place, you really want people who are inspired by the better angels of their nature.

The quality of care in any long term care facility is directly tied to the facility’s investment in the caregivers who provide it. Paying direct care workers good wages with decent benefits not only helps attract and retain workers, but it also gives them the means to adequately provide for themselves and their families. Many caregivers have no choice but to work a lot of overtime or find second jobs just to make ends meet. The work itself is physically and emotionally demanding, and when you add the stress of double shifts and long hours, the result is a caregiver workforce perpetually on the edge burnout. You can’t get the best possible care on a consistent basis from workers who are physically exhausted and emotionally drained.

It should be no mystery why J2S had such difficulty staffing the place and why even now one of the current contract agencies continues to have problems. The shortage of caregivers has become a nation-wide crisis and annual turnover rates for direct care workers typically run between fifty and sixty percent. Prior to the State’s privatization of the direct care workers, the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans was immune to this crisis.

The cost of losing that stable direct care workforce cannot be overestimated. Caregivers who are unfamiliar with the members in their care groups cannot possibly provide the same level of care as those who have had long standing relationships. But we continue to routinely throw these workers into chaotic situations and expect them to perform a high level. Usually they feel fortunate just to get through the shift with no major disasters. Or investigations.

While a sense of duty and a good work ethic are necessary in providing adequate care, there is no substitute for the personal relationship that develops between the caregiver and resident. This bond is the single most powerful motivator in providing excellent care. In environments where these relationships are encouraged to develop and flourish, workers become more caregivers, they become advocates.

If the caregiver has a moral obligation to do the best for his or her residents despite difficult circumstances, then those above us in the hierarchy and those on the outside who seek to influence the activity of caregivers have an equally compelling moral obligation to understand the consequences of that influence. This requires a basic awareness of the real challenges faced by caregivers and insight into what really motivates them. From what I’ve seen, both the Attorney General and the local watchdog reporters have failed to demonstrate that awareness and insight.

  

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.”

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. 

At the feet of the elders

Sunflower  May

I am upset. I am not having a good day. I can’t even remember what started it: something bad in my personal life that has snowballed, absorbing my every frustration about this broken system. There’s never a lack of frustration within Long-Term Care…which either makes it a great channel for all your passions, or the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Right now I am broken.
I’m behind, smashed straight into the grimy floor by all the work I’m expected to do. On top of that, everyone is call-light happy, wanting things done for them, needing to go to the bathroom for the seventh time this shift. I’m not able to get to the quiet ones for all the chaos and noise.
Mrs. K is the one I’m with right now. She’s a mess today, confused and not content with the answers I’m able to give her.
“Why am I here?” she asks me again. “I don’t need to pee!”
“I told you,” I say through tightly gritted teeth, “I haven’t been able to get to you all day. I need to check you before I go home.” It’s pretty obvious that I haven’t changed her all shift and that she’s going to need more than just checking.
The pants are wet. Wonderful. Just freaking great. The shoe laces have a knot and I can’t get them off. I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes and I can’t even wipe them away, not with my gloves on. Can you recall a tear through sheer force of will-power?
Nope, there it goes: straight down my cheek to splash against her leg. It’s like that tear broke the dam. Great sobs burst from me; I lay my head down on the closest thing and proceed to cry my heart out.
A soft hand runs through my hair, gently pushing it out of my face. I realize that I’m still kneeling in front of Mrs K, resting my head on her knee like a little child seeking comfort…comfort she is giving me.
“There, there,” she tells me, “you just let it out.
.

There’s many things they never tell you about Long-Term Care. They don’t tell you how painful it will be, how stress breaks your heart. But they also don’t tell you about this bit, the little shards of kindness and wisdom that can stab your soul. They don’t tell you about the renewing power of sharing grief. They don’t tell of how much wisdom you can gain by becoming so close to those who are near the end of life’s journey.
This is my peace, the balm of my soul. This is my joy and I will not let anything snatch it away, not this broken system, not fear and not burnout. She is losing her mind and I am breaking my heart…but this moment is ours. We’re here for each other.

 

The Crucible

Sunflower  May

Sometimes I swear the nursing home is secretly a crucible—with myself as the bit of iron being refined and beaten into steel. Maybe I’ll come out of this stronger, or maybe I’ll shatter under pressure. Sometimes I wonder what is being purged from my being…I know something is gone from my soul, gone or altered so fundamentally that it might as well disappeared.
What is burning in that fire? Is it only weakness, my selfishness, naïveté and arrogance or am I also losing bits of my compassion, my patience, all the soft parts of me? I feel harder, more brittle. Anger comes quickly, if I let it. I’ve seen so much ugliness, so much injustice and been dismissed so many times; I’ve learned by example how you dull the voice of your conscience. I have an edge I never had before, a sharpness where I was once fluid. I am weary in a way I wasn’t before. Sometimes it feels as though my youth has been a sacrifice. I meant to lay it on the altar for God and the ones I care for, but those ruled by greed and apathy keep trying to snatch it away for themselves. I’m tired and never far from sorrow.
Sometimes I miss the person I was before. In my years as an aide, I’ve shed so much of my innocence. Also, the time and energy I give to my work have held back my own stories. Change may come to this broken system, but not soon enough to save me from the bitter taste of burnout. Some days I can’t help but resent that. I remember one time being so frustrated and raging to my mother about the unfairness of it all; I remember she told me being a CNA had changed me, that I had both lost and gained from the experience. I asked her to give me the bad.
I never asked her how it had made me better. It wasn’t what I needed at the time: I needed to feel the cold water of my own failings…needed to remember my own flawed nature, that I wasn’t perfect or passive.
And I needed to decide for myself what I had gained.

Empathy
When there are worlds and words swirling endlessly inside your head, it’s easy to get lost inside yourself, to distance yourself from other people. I was absorbed in myself and my stories, before caregiving forced me out of my head and into the stories of others. If you can put yourself in another person’s place and feel what they are feeling, it makes care go so much better–especially if there is a barrier of communication like aphasia. I am a better storyteller now for having learned to put aside my own perspective. My stories have a depth they did not before, back when I still thought I was the center of the universe.

Faith.
I used to be so afraid of my own mortality…terrified that one day I’d be gone from this world and would have done nothing to mark my existence. I was so scared to be forgotten, until I held the hand of a dying woman and recited the Lord’s Prayer with her. She took that fear with her when she left this world. I have a confidence I didn’t have been.

Strength.

Before I was a CNA, I thought strength meant stature and a rigidity of will. I thought only the unbreakable and the bold were strong. I didn’t realize that true strength…that’s resilience, to have your heart broken and your dreams shattered and then get right back up to go again. Until I was surrounded by fellow caregivers, I did not appreciate that strength is a dance between confidence and humility: a willingness to bend when necessary and wisdom to know when to stand your ground.

Purpose.
I’m the kind of person who needs a crusade, something bigger than myself to feel satisfied with my life. I’m not content to let injustice go unchallenged or to allow the dignity of a person to be disregarded, no matter how much they “contribute” to society or how much of an “inconvenience” meeting their needs causes. Whatever other heartaches and frustrations come with it, being a caregiver has certainly given me a crusade to fill a lifetime or more.

In the end, it’s heart-breaking, life-affirming trade. Everything I am, I became…or rather I am only who I became. What I lost I surrendered, and what I gained I was given. What I have retained, that I earned.

Bad Boss Part 2: Consistent or Crazy

Sunflower

May

I tip my chair back, enjoying this. I had to take my lunch late due to craziness on the hall and it appears as though I wasn’t the only one. The break room is packed; everyone is eating and enjoying this chance to relax. Conversation is flowing smoothly–we’ve hit on a great topic, one with legs that could run around the world.
“Oh, I’ve got one and it’ll top May’s story!” T says between bites of her casserole. “So I had this supervisor once, who decided she was going to ‘whip us into shape’. She started disciplining people up over rules that hadn’t been enforced in so long that we’d forgotten what they were. So here she is, a holy terror over everything…until one day she asked why we were so short every shift. Then we had to remind her she’d fired half the staff.”
I choke on my baked potato. “Yeah, I’d say that tops mine.”
“You’d think she would have noticed,” mutters A.
“At least she was trying,” says P, a new aide. I haven’t known her long enough to decide if she’s optimistic or naive.
“The problem,” I sigh, “is consistency. At some point, even a crazy boss is tolerable…as long as they are consistent. If I’m allowed to do something on Monday, I’d at least like to know that I’m not going to get in trouble over it on Wednesday.”
“Only for the boss to decide that the next aide can get away with it on Friday,” T finishes.
“Hard to toe the line when it keeps shifting under your feet,” A agrees. “So which do you all think is better: the boss who never comes out of the office and lets the staff get away with anything or a micromanager?”
“I don’t know about better,” P says, “but based off your stories, I’d rather deal with an absent boss than one who is all up in my business.”
“Yeah, second that,” I say. “I’ve had enough bad bosses to learn it’s best if I just take personal responsibility for my own work ethic.”
T shakes her head slowly, like she’s thinking really hard. “That works for you–and everyone in this room–but what about the bad aides? The ones who don’t care about the quality of their care?”
Three voices rise in unison: “Then they shouldn’t be CNAs!”
“Which,” I add drily, “means that either we step into the gaps they leave or the residents go without.”
“Those kind of aides should just go flip burgers,” A spits out. “They’d make about the same and our folks wouldn’t suffer from their apathy,” P agrees.
There’s silence for a few minutes. Everyone goes back to chewing their food. Thoughts are churning ceaselessly around in my head and, from the expressions on their faces, the others are thinking just as hard. Eventually P breaks the quiet, an almost desperate look etched on her face. “Please tell me you’ve all at least had one good experience with a supervisor.”
I smile at her. “Of course. Matter of fact, we’ve got a pretty good one now.”
“Yeah,” T agrees. “He’s doesn’t do the drama, doesn’t play games and he helps.”
“He’s looking pretty stressed out lately,” A sighs. “I hope he’s not on his way out.”
All four of us look at each other in horror. Truth is, as much as we boast about our ability to self-direct and self-discipline…it’s nice to have a supervisor who can take up the slack. It’s nice to have someone who will listen when we speak, pull us aside when something needs to be addressed. It’s nice to have rules that don’t change with the wind, nice to have someone who doesn’t play favorites and isn’t afraid to be stern when he needs to be. Who isn’t afraid to joke with us when he doesn’t need to be stern. Who we can trust to be fair.
“Oh, God I hope not,” I say fervently. “Let’s go write him Employee of the Month recommendations before we get back to the floor!”

<oOo>

What makes a bad boss? If only I knew. As it is, I have only guesses…thoughts inspired from seeing events from below, glimpses into Management through cracks in the floor. I can only assume it’s the same stresses that make a bad aide. There’s too much to do, not enough time to do and precious recognition or thanks. It’s an impossible job. Only instead of taking care of far too many people for far too many hours, they are juggling the constantly changing demands of Medicare, Medicaid and the Health Department–and keeping the floor in some semblance of function.

There’s also disconnect between the care plans and the living people they represent. It’s a disconnect that in some ways can’t be helped in the current system. Charts can’t convey the reality of long term care, not alone. Accurate documentation of my shift as a CNA would mean writing a novel each day before I go home–there’s just no way to communicate the reality on a glorified spreadsheet.

And in some ways, it’s a disconnect that can very much be helped.

There’s a culture of enforced silence among direct care workers, learned in the dark hours of neglect when speaking up meant losing your job. It’s a habit we’re still trying to break, to speak our truths and tell our stories. There’s a culture of enforced deafness among managers, learned in the dark hours of greed when listening meant being mocked by your peers. It’s a habit we’re still trying to break, to listen with wisdom and compassion.

If all you look at are care plans, then you haven’t seen the person. If all you look at are numbers on page, then you haven’t experienced the toll those ratios take on your employees and residents. The best of bosses know the people they are responsible for, both residents and caregivers. They are the ones who can read on my face when I’m about to break down, who care about me enough to step in and say: “What can I do to help?” But that takes time. That takes energy.

That takes a real dedication and devotion to the art of caregiving. To all good managers and bosses–thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you do and risk for me. It does not go unnoticed and, I hope, does not go un-thanked.

Bad Boss Part 1: “Work Harder”

Sunflower

May

Note: This, like most of my posts, does not tell the story of recent events. I try to chose stories that are a few months (or years) old, although I am usually inspired by recent events or conversations which remind me of the story in question. 

All I get is a whispered warning in the hall: “Watch out for so-and-so [a person of unspecified authority in the nursing home who shall henceforth be called VIP]. She’s on a bit of a power-trip today.”
“Great,” I sigh back. This bit of information has two possible meanings:

  1. The other aide is having a Bad Day, very possibly got talked to about some deficit of care and now thinks everyone’s out to get her or
  2. VIP is actually on a power-trip and I’m going to have to try to be invisible as in addition to being everywhere at once.

We’re already working short today, and seeing as how the next shift is also short, there’s a good possibility I’m going to either be asked or ordered to work a double shift. Again. I really don’t have the energy for any more drama, I really, really don’t.
“May!”
I swing around, startled and resist the impulse to shout: “Speak of the devil!” However applicable the phrase, I fear the wording would not go down well.
“I need to see you,” VIP says. She’s dressed to the nines today, I notice and mentally calculate the cost of her outfit and accessories to be roughly a month’s worth of my wages. With, you know, the usual amount of overtime thrown in.
“Okay,” I say, bracing myself for anything.
“May, I don’t want to hear anyone saying that we are ‘short-staffed’ today or any iteration of it,” she says. “We are not. We are still within acceptable and legal ratios.” Well, technically, in our state there’s no safe staffing requirements for direct care workers/CNAs…that might very well be legal, but it’s no help on the floor…no requirements that I can find, any way. She might as well say “It’s after breakfast” when asked for the time; it’s perfectly true and very little help in figuring out if you’ve missed your favorite show. “If I hear anyone saying ‘we are short today’, or any iteration thereof, or even a mention of how difficult it is today, I will be writing up that person. Understood?”
“What am I supposed to tell my residents when they ask why I’m taking so long to get to them?”
“You’re just going to have to do your best and not let them even notice,” she says. “We do not need to be adding to their burdens because you have a few extra people today. They shouldn’t even notice a difference, it’s only four people more per group. Understood?”
I nod. Well, I’ve only been forbidden to say a few phrases: how rough can it be?

As it turns out, the only thing worse than working short of staff is being forbidden to mention this factoid.
“May, I put on my call light half an hour ago, where have you been?”
“May, this person is soaked. Why haven’t you changed him?”
“May, why isn’t this person up for the meal? What do you mean, there’s nobody available to help you with the hoyer?”
“May, why can’t you help me right now?”
“Where the hell have you been, you lazy bitch? I’ve been waiting for my shower for an hour!”
It’s chaos. I rush through my shift, begging for understanding from my folks and unable to explain why it is taking me so long to get to them. Words have always been my best weapon and I suddenly feel shackled, having been forbidden to use my words to coax or cajole patience and empathy from my folks. And I really don’t think just coming out and saying “we’re short today” would be a great shock to the increasingly frustrated and soiled residents. They’re not stupid and (for the most part) they can still count. They can see how quickly I’m running between rooms, that I haven’t stopped for a break yet, that nobody has shown up to help me. Oh, trust me, they know and my refusal to admit the truth is making some of them angry.
They aren’t the only ones. I’ve always been emotional and today has strained my control. I’m running myself ragged, haven’t had a chance to stop and breathe and for my efforts I’ve been screamed at, insulted, cussed out all day. I can’t even blame them, sitting in soiled clothes for almost an hour while I try to take care of everyone who has put on their light first. In a rather disturbing turn of events, I’m apparently having the walking-talking kind of melt-down…perhaps because I don’t have time for the actual sit-down variety. That is to say, tears are leaking from my eyes, but I haven’t stopped working and, rather bewilderingly, I’m still speaking in a semi-normal voice. I’m rushing around, doing my work in fast-forward and all the while, my sweat and tears are mixing on my cheeks. This day can’t get much worse.
I really should know better by now.

I round the corner and VIP is waiting for me. “May,” she says without preamble, “what’s going on? Why is it such chaos today?”
“…” I stammer. What can I possibly say in explanation that won’t get me written up? “I can’t keep up when it’s just me on the hall, okay? There’s just too many of them and I can’t do everything at once. Which is when they want it.”
Her eyes flash…but I never actually used the words “We’re short-staffed today.” This feels so unfair. How can I explain myself after she tied up my words and laid threats against my job?
“May, these residents deserve to have a good day without having to deal with all of our troubles. They’ve earned your best, even under challenging circumstances, so calm down, put on your big girl boots, dig a little deeper and work harder.”
Work harder? What the freaking hell does she think I’ve been doing all this time, sitting on the bathroom floor and crying my heart out? I wish! Oh, how I wish. I’m about to say something that will get me written up for sure, when a call light goes off in the room behind me. Seizing upon this gift from the heavens, I blurt out “Excuse me,” and dart in the room before VIP can say anything else. The resident in the bed looks extremely grumpy.
“May, I asked to get up an hour ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I start to say, but she doesn’t let me finish.
“May,” she says in a very different tone, “are you okay? What’s wrong? Are there not enough of you girls to take care of us today?”
“I’m running behind, but I’ll be okay,” I reply, conscious of VIP on the other side of the door. It’d be just my luck today if she had her ear pressed against the door! My resident doesn’t look like she believes me. I can’t say I blame her: faced with the evidence in the mirror over her sink, I don’t believe myself.
“You’re not okay,” she says firmly, but kindly. “You need to take a break.”
“Don’t have time.”
“Did I ask for your opinion? Did I call for a vote? Now sit down and take a minute to pull yourself together. If anyone asks, we’ll say I had to shit really bad.” That sliver of concern, of human compassion breaks the last of my control and I start to sob in earnest, out loud and quite noisily. I sink down to the floor, half-hidden by her bed, bury my face in my arms and proceed to rage and storm at the injustice of it all.
Who the hell does she think…no, that’s not it. VIP isn’t wrong in what she said. She’s actually got a good point about what my folks deserve…but under these “challenging circumstances” I don’t know how to give them what they deserve. Does she think I want my folks to soil themselves? Does she think I like having my residents sit in their own urine for hours? Does she think I’m not trying my damnedest to push through these challenging circumstances?
She isn’t wrong. She’s got a good point…and yet, it’s hard to hear the words “Work harder” from someone who is calm and collected while I’m weeping silently and uncontrollably. It’s hard to accept criticism from someone who is wearing roughly a month’s worth of my wages on her person, when I’m decidedly not looking my best. I looked at her, then I looked at myself and all I saw were the differences that divided. And I hate that. I hate thinking in binary terms, us and them, the powerful and the powerless. I hate looking at her and seeing only the wealth she’s wearing, the power she holds over me. It shouldn’t be like this. We’re both persons. Everything I believe in says we are equals…but I’m so stressed I can’t even hear my own beliefs in my own head. I hate that the only words reverberating in my mind are those that scream: “She’s on a power-trip and I’m the pavement she’s pounding.” It comes down to trust and right now, I don’t trust VIP to have my back.
Okay, calm down. Breathe in, breathe out. I’m not thinking straight and it’s likely I’m misconstruing her motives or projecting my turmoil onto her. I can’t do that. She’s got a good point, the residents shouldn’t have to bear our burdens…it’s just her approach to the problem was a bit half-baked and she didn’t consider how an overwrought CNA might take her words or choice of expensive accessories.
Calm down. Pull yourself together, if not for her than for your residents.
Because if there’s one thing in this whole mess that I have reason to be upset over, it’s that between a staff member with [unspecified] authority and a resident, it shouldn’t have been the resident who made the sacrifice to give me the time I needed to pull myself together.
When my ten minutes of rage and tears are over, I rise and splash cold water on my face. My resident still looks concerned, but she allows me to get her up and together we leave the room. Back into the chaos, but this time, I am master of myself.

<oOo>

I have been blessed: while I have had experiences with bad bosses (as detailed above), I’ve also had good bosses and, more frequently, decent bosses who were neither great nor terrible. It’s not all horror stories. It’s even mostly horror stories.

But what makes a bad boss? What combination of stresses and personal flaws combine to make a nightmare experience for those who work under these people? Sometimes it’s hard to remember, especially in the moment, that a bad boss is still just a person and not evil incarnate…a flawed human being, same as yourself. It just so happens that their flaws have the power to make your life a living hell while you labor under their authority.

Suffering the consequences

MaySunflower

“I just can’t believe it!” my supervisor rants. She’s red in the face, her breath coming in quick and angry. “I hope you all know you’ve done this to yourself! Why do you keep shooting yourself in the foot?”
It’s a typical: something’s happened and we’re in a meeting. The supervisors are informing us of our mistakes and we are silent on the opposite side of the room. Typical. Happens a lot in long term care.

But don’t jump to conclusions. This isn’t a story about the problems of leadership of long term care (that’s for another day). My supervisor might be angry, but she’s got reason to be. This situation is, maybe miraculously, exactly as she’s said.

Anyone who’s set foot in a nursing home knows exactly what I’m talking about. Gossip. Older aides being mean to new staff. Working in cliques. Aides refusing to a call light because “it’s not my resident”. Saying, in the middle of the hall way with residents around “I hate my job!” Acting like it’s an inconvenience to take care of a resident.
You know, shit like that.
My supervisor is asking a valid question when she demanded “Why?”
Why do CNAs shoot themselves in the foot? I’m not saying every aide does it, but I’m not going to deny it happens…more often than it should.

I think, in part, it’s because this is a hard job and so personal in every detail. I was trying to explain to a friend how long term care was a different beast from other kinds jobs. Without belittling the importance and value of other jobs,
“Imagine every mistake you make at work. Now imagine that mistake happened on a human being. Now imagine that mistake happening on someone who has lost the ability to do anything for themselves.”
Is it any wonder we aides get stressed? But it’s not just stress. It’s also guilt. I got in a hurry and tore the skin from this human being’s arm. I walked past that call light because I was so hungry and that human being soiled himself. I got frustrated and the human being, whose wellbeing is my responsibility, heard me say how much I hate this place.
That’s a lot of guilt and you’d better believe it stings.
At the same time, every aide knows all too well that feeling of helplessness. It’s not a good situation and who knows when it will get better. Some days, it feels like it never will.
I did my best today. It wasn’t enough. My residents still went too long between changing. I haven’t brushed their teeth in so long. I did my best today, but it’s not enough. It’s never enough. My personal passion can never cover the flaws of the system.

Guilt combined with helplessness and pure stress turns into frustration. Frustration spills out.
Even worse, frustration can turn some people numb. It’s a losing battle anyway, so what’s the point? Why exhaust myself when the effort doesn’t change a thing?
Have you ever seen a caregiver turn numb? Have you ever seen a caregiver lose their sense of empathy for the resident? When their perception of the resident shifts from “human being whose welfare is my responsibility” to “nuisance in the way of getting my work done on time”.
It’s not good. It’s also not rare.
In this state of mind, it’s easy to lash out, say things we shouldn’t. It’s easy to exude a toxic atmosphere when there’s so much resentment, guilt, helplessness and other negative emotions built up inside us.

I get it. I really do: I’ve been an aide long enough to be familiar with both the guilt and the helplessness. When your best isn’t enough, when nothing you do seems to make a difference, when exhaustion sinks its claws into you…I get it. We’re only human; we aren’t infallible angels. It is too much to ask of us, at times. How can we be positive and cheerful with new aides when we’re just so damn tired?

The flaws of the system do not absolve me of my personal responsibility to take care of my residents. Proper care means proper staffing…means not running off new aides with a toxic attitude. I’m the one who chose to fight this battle…so either I keep fighting for their dignity or I quit. No other options, no other door.

Simply put, CNAs do not have the luxury of shooting ourselves in the foot because it is not just us who suffer from the consequences. Other human beings, whose welfare is our responsibility, suffer as well.

That it is the question, part two

Sunflower

May

Being an aide, I’ve decided, is a bit like throwing yourself at a brick wall, thinking that either the wall is going to come down or you are going to splatter yourself all over it.
Unfortunately or not, what actually happens is you come away bloody and for all your pain, all you’ve done to the wall is put a couple hairline cracks in it.

“If I don’t do it, who will?” This question might feel like it is being asked out of a lack of faith in our fellow aides…like nobody but myself is capable of doing it.
Unfortunately, it is a honest question. Anyone who has been around Long Term Care for any length of time, for any reason, can attest the chronic short-handedness that plagues so many facilities.

“If I don’t pick up that shift, who will?”
The answer might be nobody. Everybody is exhausted and everybody has lives outside the nursing home. They’ll go short that day and frustration will increase.
“If I’m not here in a year, who is going to be there for these people?”
Very possibly, a stranger who will put in her two-weeks notice the next day. The staffing coordinator didn’t tell her she was signing up for a tour in hell, after all. There’s got an easier way to make a living.

The system, as it is set up today, depends on sacrifice. It relies on dependable aides who pick up shift after shift, who will stick it out for little money and little hope of relief. And that’s a problem…and CNAs are not the only victims. The residents suffer too, often feeling like it is their fault. The elderly often feel themselves to be a burden and it is horrible that the current system only enforces that feeling, as they watch the parade of faces come and go.

Perhaps the answer lies in the middle. Set your own boundaries because your supervisors certainly won’t. There’s no ceiling on overtime and if you’re willing to do it, they aren’t going to stop you.
Know how much you are willing and able to give. Stick to your story: if you’ve got plans, you’ve got plans you can’t reschedule. The pathos is palpable in the nursing home and it is so very, very easy to give more than you have when surrounded by desperation. Remember your own needs while you take care of others. There is something in the make-up of a caregiver that wants to make things better. Watch that instinct and don’t be the hero all the time. You can’t give from emptiness.

Give what you can, but know when you can’t. Our only responsibility is to provide high-quality care and compassion while we are there…however long that is. Picking up is (or should be) optional. Pace yourself.
That wall isn’t going to come down all at once and I’ve seen aides break their hearts and shatter their compassion trying.
Hairline cracks are progress, no matter how insignificant they feel.
Don’t burn yourself out.

That is the question, part one

Sunflower

May

It’s the oddest conversation I am not part of.
I mean, I’m just sitting here quietly, chewing my food and watching two other aides fight it out. Neither one of them is backing down and I honestly agree with both of them…which is odd because they cannot agree with one another.
Like so much of the world of long term care, this argument arose over being short staffed.
“We have a responsibility,” A says with conviction. “You see how many open shifts there are this month! I have a responsibility to my residents not to let them suffer and that means picking up shifts when I can. Working over, to make sure they get the quality of care they deserve. If I don’t do it, who will?”
“I have a responsibility,” B says firmly. “I have a responsibility to my residents not to burn myself out. You see how often people quit! I have a responsibility to my residents to make sure I’m here for a long time. That means pacing myself and not working insane hours. If I’m not here for these people down the road, who will be?”

Ah, that is the question. Questions, I should say…although, at their root, both seem to be of a similar flavor to me. But my lunch break is over and I need to get back to the floor.
The questions linger in my head, possible answers swirling around.