I do not understand why anyone would continue in this career if they don’t have a love for what they do. It’s not the money. It certainly isn’t the respect. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a nurse offhandedly tell a caregiver that being a nurse is hard, that there are so many responsibilities; The unintentional implication being that we don’t know how good we have it. And I don’t doubt that the nursing field has challenges and rewards that I haven’t experienced as a caregiver but unless a nurse has experience as a CNA in a Long Term Care facility, the reverse is true as well.
I have developed a set of ideals, skills and standards that I consider both invaluable to being a quality caregiver and highly overlooked by the system at large. None of these skills include excellent hospital corners or perfectly folded laundry, both skills with which I could use improvement. It’s not that I consider those parts of the job without value; it’s just the least important of the skills we need to provide quality care and often the first noticed when the hall is inspected by supervisors.
“Did you make the bed in room 237?”, demands an imaginary boss I created to express this point.
“No not yet. Agnes is freaking out because she thinks Ida stole her dog and she’s refusing to let anyone but me in her room…let me just…” make-believe me replied.
“Are you kidding me?! The OWNER is on his way and he wants this hall to LOOK perfect. Leave her. She’ll be fine. Go make sure all the beds are made.”
Now, I made that scenario up. I’ve never actually had anyone named Agnes or Ida in my care. But I have had countless experiences with some version of the above situation; enough for me to know that the priorities in these facilities are WAY off the mark.
The residents come first. It is up to us as caregivers to make certain that is not just lip service. And let’s be really honest here, the top of the hierarchy in these facilities view it as a business. The amount of money it costs a month for an apartment here is mind boggling. I work in a really nice place that almost no one could afford. That is the sad truth. I’m not implying that these corporations shouldn’t take in a profit and I’m not saying that the one in which I work isn’t a decent place. What I am saying is that in the ten years I’ve worked in this field, with varying degrees of severity, the issues in each facility have always been the same; have always branched from the same root. Everyone pays attention to playing their own instrument without considering what it takes to create a symphony. So we end up with a cacophony of noise instead of harmonious music.
I’ve learned through the years that I personally understand the value and necessity in what we do better than the state surveyors. The seem to have a very limited scope of what is deemed important. So I don’t limit myself to their standards, many of which seem silly and misplaced and others that do not reach nearly far enough. It’s as if they have one fixed idea of who lives in these facilities and no ability to get to know the vast array of individuals living with a myriad of challenges, both physical and mental. No interest or time to get to know the residents or those of us who care for them. So I don’t flinch when they arrive to dot some “I”s and cross some “T”‘s.
I am in this gig because I SEE people. There has been much I’ve had to learn and skills that I’ve had to improve upon. My ability to see beyond an age or disability to the person beneath is not one of them. For whatever reason, that part of the job is innate for me. I love seeing bravery in action. I love the stories. I love going to sleep knowing I make a tangible difference in the life of others. I love that I’m never bored. I love that there will always be something new to learn. With people, there always is. These are my whys. Because I know them, have defined them for myself no one can devalue my job. I am not confused why I’m in this field and that has made all the difference. It’s prevented frustration from turning to resentment. It’s inspired me to continue to try to improve the system. It’s opened the door to be both teacher and student and has saved me from becoming jaded from burn out. I defined my career. I didn’t allow someone with little knowledge of it to do it for me simply because they had a degree on the wall. So I would like to know your “why’s” readers. Whatever role you play in the long term care system, what motivates you? What keeps you coming back? And how do you think we can work together to fix what’s broken?
I could hear her shuffling down the hall again. She was having a restless night, up every two hours hoping that it was morning. She slept too much during the day and it’s thrown her for a loop. Mentally, she was in that grey in-between place. She is cognizant of the fact that her thoughts are becoming murkier. She is aware that chunks of time slip by unnoticed and she is sharp enough to realize that she is not as sharp as she once was. I can’t imagine anything scarier and yet she handles it with both wit and rueful acceptance. At least I’m not ready for the hole. At least I’m not locked in that cage you call a unit.
Truth be told, I was grateful for the interruption. It was an unusually quiet night and I was on one of the easier halls. At first, I was grateful for the break, having worked several nights straight on memory care. I knocked out the laundry and cleaned the floor’s kitchen. I even threw in first shift’s laundry just to keep busy. I had the time. Soon I had done all there was to do other than hall checks every two hours. In between, I decided to catch up on the news. That was a bad idea. I stumbled into the comments section under the articles. That was an even worse idea.
The whole world is yelling at one another. Honestly, it didn’t matter the topic of the article or what side of the argument the yelling people were on because they all sounded exactly the same. I read the term “butt-hurt” twenty-three times in the comment section. I COUNTED it! Do you know what that means (other than the fact that whatever drive that motivated me to count it in the first place may be somewhat warped)? It means that twenty-three fully functioning adults from both sides of a debate felt that a perfectly appropriate way to express an idea or debate a thought was to call another person butt-hurt. Or snowflake. Or fascist. Or stupid.
Suddenly I was hit with a wave of deep sadness. Because there is nothing I could do about all the anger, the racism, the dumbing down of our society to the point where name calling is the best we have to offer in terms of open discourse. I can’t convince a world of people thriving on panic and smugness that life isn’t anywhere near as terrifying as they think it is and we have faced much more difficult times as a society. Maybe it was the 3:00 AM blues. Maybe I was just tired but it put my head in a dark space.
Suddenly I was thinking about my residents from facilities in which I worked in the past who didn’t make it or were “evicted” when their funding ran out. I was thinking of people I knew who ended up in assisted living as a direct result of untreated addiction issues or undiagnosed mental health struggles. I was thinking of the client I had to walk away from in order to work here. Before I knew it I was entangled with a combination of genuine emotion mixed with misguided self-pity over how powerless I felt to do anything about any of it. When I was a kid playing make believe, I never imagined adulthood to be full of bullies anonymously screaming “butt-hurt” at each other as they angrily debated the presidency of the dude from the Apprentice. It just wasn’t a reality that I envisioned. I certainly didn’t think those in power would cut the funding for the most vulnerable. Would cut the regulations designed to protect them.
All of this was dancing an awful tango in my head when I heard the steady thump thump thump of her cane as she came down the hall. Relieved at the interruption to my traitorous mind, I jumped up to meet her. There she was, decked out in earrings, bangle bracelets glasses on her head and a velour track suit, the top of which she somehow managed to put on inside out and backwards. The laugh escaped me before I could stop it. Her face fell. She thought I was laughing at her.
“The damn top is tricky. It’s hard to get dressed in the dark.”, she said defensively. This. THIS I can do something about. As she continued to try to explain why she had a rough time putting her shirt on the right way, I quietly bent down and rolled up both legs of my scrubs. Her voice trailed off mid-excuse. Her eyes widened and a smile spread across her face as she stared at my ghostly legs. My left leg was clad in a striped knee sock pulled all the way up and covered in smiley faces. My right one had a black and white polka dot ankle sock. Her smile became a chortle that quickly grew into a belly laugh that filled me with joy for what I do and chased away the last of the cobwebs in my mind.
“Now THAT’S a damn shame!” She sputtered between laughs. I was howling right along with her. Whether it was luck or providence or procrastination of my own laundry that had my socks so completely mismatched, I don’t know. I only know that it saved that shift for both of us. It reminded her that she’s not alone and it reminded me that the little things over which I do have power are maybe not so little. You can’t put a price on a genuine laugh, after all. That is something and in that moment it made all the difference.
I’m sure in the light of day, this facility is charming. I can’t quite remember the impression I had of the building in which I work during my two day orientation, which took place in the bright sunshiney hours. The relief and excitement I felt about the new job opportunity dimmed my keen powers of observation; the same Sherlock Holmes level of visual acuity that prevents me from getting into the wrong car and trying to start it more than twice a week. So I can’t say for certain that in daylight it’s a charming, lovely place. I can only assume. At night, however, there is no more fitting a descriptor than “creeptastic”.
Let’s start with the huge portrait of an incredibly stern looking man above the fireplace. His eyes seem to follow you everywhere and then there are the clown pictures and blood red carpets and creaks in the floor and the overabundance of wind chimes…all of which may add whimsy and class to the joint in the day, but at night? No. It feels like the environment of a stereotypical horror movie that would be panned for being too predictable.
I say this with great affection. It’s exactly the sort of strange and surreal experience that I’ve come to appreciate in my life. It’s anything but ordinary but after this weeks stretch on memory care, I realized that buildings are not the only things haunted at night and there is only so much I can do to chase away another person’s inner demons.
It makes sense, really. When does my mind spin the most, picking apart the day and chasing my own imaginary fears? When is my own anxiety at its peak if I had a rough day? Right before bed. And if I can’t sleep? Forget about it. My mind runs wild. Why would I expect any different from those in my care?
At night in the quiet, dimly lit halls of the memory care unit, my night owls pace. Sometimes they are just confused about the time. That is easy to redirect usually. I explain to them my days get topsy turvey too, we share a chuckle, I tuck them in and off to sleep they go. I can do that all night without losing patience. No, it’s the other situations that get to me.
I call them the “night dreads”. When one of my folks has a rough night, it’s very different than what I experienced when I worked the day shifts. Sure, there was any number of challenging behaviors and there was less time to redirect in the day but it was different. Maybe because there were more people around and the extra stimulation kept them more alert. They seemed less…haunted. Nightmares can be hard to shake off. A vivid enough one can muddy my perspective for awhile but when I’m awake, I’m awake. This is not how it is for my residents. A nightmare will shake them to their core. They don’t always understand the difference between their dreams and waking life. Often they will wander up and down the halls, looking for lost loved ones. Where is my mother? Where is my love?…letting them know they aren’t alone and are safe seems to help. I put them back to bed and sit with them for awhile. Sometimes I sing quietly. I make certain that the bathroom light is on.
More often than not, I will be repeating that throughout the night but each episode seems to be just a little easier. Each time the resident seems a little less scared. Usually, right as the sun is coming up, they are able to rest more deeply. Those nights are the hardest; the ones when I can’t chase away the ghosts for them, I can only put them at bay. They leave me exhausted, sad and a little scared at the idea of anyone having to live through the night dreads and little frustrated that the best I can do is walk with them through it.
Thankfully, tonight was free of that. Tonight there was mostly laughter. I have a resident who without fail leaves his room wearing the oddest combinations of clothing: long johns with a back brace and a red ladies hat with a purple flower (no telling where he picked that one up) was today’s fashion choice.
“Is is time for coffee?” I managed to keep a straight face for five seconds when I saw his get up.
“No, buddy. It’s 3:00 in the morning.”
“Ok. I’m going back to bed then. Don’t forget me in the morning!”, he called over his shoulder.
“Never, my friend.”, I assured him. You know what? Today, I’m going to make a conscious effort to see how this place looks in the sun. Most things are clearer in the light of day.
In all my years in this field I have never had a person in my care who did not respond better when approached consistently with kindness. Never, not one single time. My most resistant residents have been more willing to be an active participant in their own care when they didn’t feel invisible. My most confused residents had less anxiety clouding their minds when I have been able to coax a laugh from them. Kindness doesn’t cost a thing. It takes no more time to be kind than it does to be resentful and impatient and it takes far less energy.
“You’re going to spoil them”.
“Now they’re going to expect that from everyone.”
“Don’t get that one going. She’ll talk your ear off if you let her”…To which I politely smile and go about doing my job exactly as I see fit. Treating my folks the way I’d want to be treated is not “spoiling” them. It’s being good at my job. I give my best effort regardless of what it causes other people to expect. Quite frankly, I don’t care if that raises the bar or not. My work ethic does not include doing less for those in my care so they don’t expect it from other workers. And I don’t mind having my ear talked off. Why should my night owls feel lonely? If they want to talk and I’m not in the middle of a task, I have no problem listening.
The idea that the people in our care are tasks to be minimized and tackled begrudgingly has to be changed. Not every caregiver treats the job with such apathy; not even most, but there are more than enough that do. Rightly or wrongly, the majority of hard working and dedicated caregivers are stigmatized by the behavior of those who are not right for this field.
We are the frontline of Long Term Care. We are the faces most seen. When something goes wrong, we are the easiest to blame. People see the bad behavior of the caregiver and not the broken system that spawned it.
There is grace, value and purpose in this field. We are needed and trusted by those in our care. There is something sacred about that. If the system has beaten you down to the point of resenting those in your care and basic human kindness is too much to ask, then maybe it’s time to consider another field. As workers we don’t like to feel disposable or invisible so why would we treat our residents as little more than a burden? We can do better. We HAVE to do better…any lasting change that matters will begin with those of us who work the floors. We are the closest to the residents and we have a deeper understanding of the world through their eyes. All improvement begins from within, though, and before we change the system we have to change our attitude toward those who live within it.
“I’ve had it! Second shift ALWAYS does this and now they want to put an extra shower on OUR shift. I’m going to the office.”
“It’s not like anything will come of it…”
“They left the bed pad in the drier AGAIN!…”
“Don’t do first shifts laundry, Alice. They’ll come to expect it…”
Sigh. Here we go again. It seems that regardless of the facility, the shift, or the home in which I work there is one constant and faulty idea that drives people: a problem can be solved by bitching at it and blaming others.
When I first started in this field, I simply tried to avoid those conversations. It’s difficult but not impossible to do. I would change the topic or find something else to do. A few years into this career, I was hit by the superhero bug. Somehow, not getting drawn into the toxic drama was not enough. I would FIX it! I felt comfortable with my co-workers and got along with all of them. It was only reasonable to impart upon them my worldly wisdom. Being “the Great Reformer”, I was surprised that my long winded and preachy speeches on the value of open communication and a sense of community were met with eye rolls rather than inspired applause and immediate action. What was WRONG with people?!
It turns out that I was asking myself the wrong questions. While blame and finger pointing never solved a problem, neither did dismissing the frustration and very real emotions that those involved in the situation may be feeling. A problem can’t be solved without acknowledging it either. So I started listening without offering solutions. I let go of what my co-workers were doing and began focusing on what I was doing. If I had an issue with a co-worker, I addressed it privately with that co-worker. If I have extra time and there is another shifts laundry to be done, I do it quietly. I know what it’s like to work first shift and any help is welcome. I make myself available to those who may need an extra set of hands when I am able. I make certain that I am consistently trust worthy. I don’t engage in gossip just to feel like a part of the group. I don’t seek approval. In other words, with varying degrees of success, I work according to my own standards. I put my money where my mouth is and let my feet do the talking. And it’s worked!
People work differently with me. They stopped bringing gossip around without my having to ask. If I need an extra set of hands, someone shows up. They know by my actions that I wouldn’t take advantage of them and that if needed, I’ll be right there with them too. The other shifts are friendly and grateful. They listen to shift report and I take my time rather than rush through it. There is a synergistic energy that stems from mutual trust.
Once I freed myself from the cage of minding other people’s business, I was better able to focus and improve upon my own. That is the simple and quiet path to actually making an impact on the world around you. Change is inspired by consistent and sometimes humbling steps forward. It isn’t about what you know and how loudly you know it. It’s about what you DO and how consistently you DO it. It’s a valuable lesson I learned from working the floor that I hope to apply off the clock. Society as a whole could use it right now.
I never thought I’d enjoy being a floater. I thought I’d feel disjointed; a caregiver without a home. I’ve always had a hall or a family. One place that was consistent and I liked it that way. I cared for the same people, worked with the same co-workers in the nice normal daytime hours. Now my nights are days, my co-workers are scarce and I never know what hall I’m going to be working. Despite the mental fogginess and strange anxiety I feel in the daylight, I am enjoying the newness of this experience. I am not certain I could pull it off for years, like some of my co-workers but for now at least, it’s a good opportunity to hone my skills.
I have worked every hall on every floor. There isn’t a resident in this building I haven’t met. At first the idea of learning the needs, habits,patterns and personalities of so many residents was daunting. I over thought it. Much to my relief, knowing those in my care comes as naturally to me while working many halls as it did while working one.
Room 128 is an exceptionally smart woman and enjoys a good discussion on a multitude of topics. She’s a night owl. She is also a bit possessive of my time and it hurts her feelings when I have to end our conversation to do my final rounds. My solution? Make a 3AM “tea party”. It’s a slow time and she feels special for the extra attention. The gentleman in room 324 will stay up all night if that’s what it takes to finish his 500 piece puzzles. I’m pretty awful at puzzles. He enjoys showing me tricks to matching the pieces. Room 243 is a painter. Room 101 loves a midnight snack. And memory care at night…that topic is going to get its own post.
Being a floater forces me to see beyond just one hall. In order to be effective, I have to be flexible. I work with a variety of people with a wide range of personalities and challenges. Some halls are very active at night and some are hauntingly silent. As a floater, I thought I would feel like a caregiver without a home. It didn’t occur to me that by working every hall, the entire building would become my home and I will be more well-rounded for the experience.
It will get better. I promise… I must have said that a hundred times to our new resident. She didn’t sleep at all. She searched for her mother, father, friend, a child and a pair of shoes that she must have left in England. She paced the floor for hours on ends. She changed her clothes eight times. She knocked on the doors of my other residents and asked me a garbled series of questions to which I had no good answers. In short, she did absolutely everything BUT sleep.
It was an unusually hectic night and by the end of the shift, I was emotionally tapped out. My new resident was so scared, hurt and anxious and eight straight hours of trying to soothe her in between my other tasks left its mark on me. In the end, I walked with her as she paced, rubbed her back when she cried, and made promises that I can’t possibly keep when she frantically asked questions based on the reality within her mind.
It will get better. I promise. I say it all the time. I redirect and calm and search for pets or loved ones that exist only in my residents’ memories. And yes, more often than not using those skills in those moments will bring a measure of short lived relief. But that doesn’t mean it will get better for them. Not in any lasting or impactful way. I can’t stop the loss of her memories. I can’t take away her confusion and unfamiliarity at her new surroundings nor the sense of abandonment and anxiety that comes from being pulled from one reality and placed into different one. I. Am. Powerless.
Normally I am good at compartmentalizing this awareness. It does no good to let those thoughts dance around in my mind. Such thinking only robs me of space in my head that is better used for what I actually can do to make life better for those in my care…normally. There are moments though when I am struck by a wave of such sadness that it robs me of my breath and I feel crushed; paralyzed by the weight of it all. Usually they hit me when I’m feeling powerless in my life outside of work or have been dabbling too long in my mind for my writing. My mind can be a fun place to be, but there are roads in there better left untraveled. The fact is, both on and off the clock, I deal with some pretty heavy shit. It’s kind of what I do. And acceptance of that, even joy in it, is so hardwired into me that I forget sometimes that it takes a toll if I’m not careful. Those short lived crashing waves of momentary despair are my wake up call. HEY ALICE! You’ve been playing too long in the deep end again! Come up for air!
So how do I stick with it and keep the faith without losing the ability to feel? Without becoming hardened? I get out of the problem as quick as I can and get back in the solution. Can I cure Alzheimer’s? No. Can I make someone living with Alzheimer’s laugh hard? More often than not. Can I force someone to get sober? No. Can I offer numbers and resources to someone who is in desperate need of help? Yes. I can do that. There are many aspects of life over which I have no power at all. Some but not all. I can DO. I can consistently and relentlessly keep moving forward. I can brighten another person’s day. I can do my job to the best of my ability. I can be kind and I can never give up. Even when it sometimes feels like the world is begging for it. That I have power over. That is my choice. Powerless and helpless are not the same thing.
This blog started with the idea that the voice and experience of caregivers has been a vital missing ingredient to the improvement of Long Term Care. A conversation about reform that doesn’t include our voice is like bread being baked without yeast.
When Bob found me on a CNA support site I had been searching for answers. For quite awhile, I had felt lost. I was appalled at how those in our care were being treated by the system as a whole. I was beyond frustrated that nothing my fellow co-workers and I said seemed to matter to those in charge. I was saddened by the fact that this was accepted as a matter of course and I was unwilling to believe that nothing could be done about any of it. By providence, fate, or incredibly good timing, I was ready to jump in when Bob explained his idea for this blog and asked me to be a part of it.
Over the last few years you have walked with us as we expressed the frustration, beauty, humor, love and loss that comes as part of the package in this field. Many of you have shared your experiences with us in the comments or emails. I had no idea how far reaching this blog would be or how much I personally would be affected by writing for it. I did not realize at the time that by simply writing a post a week not only would I be an active part of the solution and have the ability to reach others, but I would be opening a door to allow all of you to reach me.
You…yes YOU, reading this, give me hope. You aren’t sleep walking through life telling yourself that one person can’t make a difference so why bother trying. Instead you are reading a blog that’s very existence proves otherwise. It is an incredibly inspiring and deeply moving experience to be a part of CNA edge. In the process I have learned that I am not alone, that we can and are making a difference and that we all have a responsibility to keep speaking our truths, even when we feel it falls on deaf ears.
If you are reading this, you have impacted my life. You inspire me. Writing these pieces force me to look beneath the surface to the deeper essential realities in this field, to dig deep, be honest about my emotions and fears and face them head on. I can never give up because of you. You force me to be brave because how can I ask you to be willing to take a stand and consistently work for change on every level of this field if I am not doing so myself? How can I expect you to believe that you can make a difference if I don’t believe it myself? What experience is more rewarding than to inspire and be inspired? So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
As a caregiver, I cut my teeth on first shift memory care. For years that was my world. Fast paced, short staffed and unpredictable, first shift was nonstop action. I remember thinking it was ridiculous that there was a pay differential for third shift. After all, there work load was so much lighter than ours. It just didn’t seem fair. I thought along the same lines about private care. One client? How hard could it be? Why were they paid so much more than those of us in facilities? Their job was a cake walk in comparison. Of course, at the time I had no experience with private care or third shift but it seemed like common sense to me. I was wrong.
Contempt prior to investigation. My thinking at the time can best be described by that simple concept. And we are all guilty of that from time to time; Viewing people, events, and moments solely through the lens of our individual perception without the benefit of direct knowledge. If the past few years have taught me anything, it is that the remedy for such thinking is actual experience.
Private care was not easy street. In many ways, it was much more challenging for me than working in a facility. Sure, I occasionally lamented the pace and amount of work we had to accomplish on first shift in my facility, but truth be told, that is when I’m at my best. It was harder for me to pull back and refocus my energy than I expected. The hours were long and it was difficult for me to set work boundaries without the guidance of an agency. It could be very lonely and at times I felt very isolated. The flow of the shift was entirely based on other people’s moods and level of pain. There were also amazing aspects of private care. I loved the family. All of them. I loved the freedom of working independently and having the time to really get to know my client. I loved being involved in bringing holidays back into the house and making her laugh. I loved the deeper connections I was able to forge because my focus wasn’t split eight ways to Sunday. That also made it very hard to leave when a new opportunity arose. My two year journey into private care has enriched my experience in this field and added skills, abilities and insight into my work that I would not have gained had I not taken that path for a little while.
Though I’ve only just begun my jaunt into third shift, I’ve already made some realizations. I understand why they offer a shift differential now. It’s true that the work load is much lighter but that is all I was right about. When I worked first shift, I ran hard. I bled for the job, but when I clocked out for the day I was able to leave work at work. For the most part, anyway. Not so on third. So much of my time in the day is spent trying to effectively work sleep into my schedule so I can be awake and alert through my shift that even when I’m not at work, I’m thinking about work. Or thinking about sleep. And everything else has to be worked in between those two things. The extra money isn’t about what happens on the clock. It’s about the willingness to rearrange life off the clock in order to work when the worlds asleep. It’s about the toll that takes on your mind and body. Sad to say, I would not have connected the dots on that had I never taken this position.
So I am very glad my experience in this field has evolved and hope it will continue to do so. These experiences will remind me not to engage in the “shift wars”. We do not need to tear each other down, ESPECIALLY without having the first clue as to what it’s like from first hand experience. I consider it a lesson well learned.
I stared numbly at the words that my mind refused to comprehend. Missing man, thirty, found dead in the creek wearing only his underwear. He was just a kid. And suddenly I was filled with such a moment of fury and heartbreak that it took all that I had in me not to pick up the nearest item and throw it through the window. HE WAS JUST A KID!
People who make snap judgements will look at the grainy photo that went along with the article and make false and hurtful assumptions. Probably another junkie. One less drain on the system. He must have been doing something…and then dismiss it from their minds. In that moment I was filled with a rage that such people cast down opinions from the lofty heights of their moral smugness without knowing the first thing about the person or his story.
He was one of my residents several years ago. I remember how shocked I was that someone in his early twenties and physically healthy landed in an assisted living facility. His roommate was more than fifty years older than him and unwell. I thought that there must be a better place for him, more suited to his needs. A safe place where he can be around people his own age with similar challenges and make friends and have a better quality of life. I didn’t consider at the time that deep cuts to the mental health care budget robbed him and many others like him of a better option. There are no long term treatment centers for those living with mental disabilities. He never complained, though. Never once did I hear him say a negative thing about anyone or anything.
He had the mind of a child, but he also had the heart of a child. He was a big guy. To look at him, you wouldn’t think he was so gentle a spirit. You wouldn’t know that he was the first one to help a feisty old lady get down the hall in her wheelchair; just about the only person she would LET help her. You wouldn’t know that he’d give the shirt off his back to a friend. I used to worry about him being taken advantage of by some of my other residents until I realized how much he got from being able to help another. He was kind and he was lonely but he had a good sense of humor and the moments I could coax a smile from him reminded me why I was in this field.
And then one day he was gone. People move from facility to facility or back home to their family with little to no warning. I’ve gotten used to quick adjustments. Old residents move and new ones show up just as suddenly. I didn’t see him for a few years after that, but everyone who has ever been in my care has left an imprint in my life and every now and then I would wonder how he was getting along. Then one day last year, I saw for myself.
On sat nights, I volunteer at a behavioral health center. And there he was! In the support group! Now, the meeting I bring in is completely voluntary so I always feel hopeful when the clients in that short term center choose to come to it. I’m able to offer some numbers and resources that can get them on a path to wellness at least. I feel like I can bring them a little hope, but if I am being honest with myself, I could tell he was not looking so good. He was every bit as kind in that setting as he was when he was living at the facility… but his smile seemed haunted, his eyes looked sad and he appeared way too thin. After the meeting, I gave him a gigantic hug and told him to take care of himself. To talk to his case manager. That I loved him to pieces and that everybody missed him. He smiled and waved as he walked back to his unit. I wish I had taken five minutes to get him some phone numbers. He didn’t ask for any and maybe he wouldn’t have used them if I had, but I wish I tried.
That was the last time I saw him alive.
I want to tell him I’m sorry. I am so sorry that you died in such a way. You deserved so much better. I’m sorry that people failed you and had failed you most of your life. I’m sorry you weren’t protected the way you should have been or encouraged and given the opportunities that so many take for granted. I’m sorry I rushed out after that meeting rather than stay and talk with you for a few more minutes. I’m sorry that cuts to mental health funding and Goddamn politics played a part in the untimely death of such a good kid. I’m sorry there was no one to whom you could reach out and that you fell through the cracks of the systems designed to protect you time and time and time again. I hope part of you knew that you were not alone. I will not forget you, my friend.