Category Archives: Wisdom of Residents

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.”

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.

 

One Voice, One Vote: Why Bother?

Sunflower May

I hate election time. I’ve come to absolutely despise all the political ads, all the fear-based rhetoric and emotional responses that seem to wash away all traces of common sense from both sides of the political spectrum. Working in a nursing home, it’s hard to get away from the political reality: TVs blare from every room and, supported as the Long-Term Care system is by the political one, it’s hard to forget that election season and its results could/will have a direct impact on my work environment.
I just can’t get away from this election, not even while I am passing out lunch trays to my folks. As I enter Mr. U’s room, the first thing I see is his TV on, set on a news channel where they are, once again, talking about the election. And in the room itself, fat stacks of political ads litter the bedside table, leaving nowhere to set his tray. As I sift through faces and promises, trying to make enough room for his lunch, I have to wonder: how did my residents get on all these mailing lists?
I’m so sick of this election and I can hear that frustration seeping into my voice as I announce the presence of food to Mr. U.
“Thanks,” he replies, never moving his gaze from the TV. “Hey, little girl, are you voting on Election Day?”
I nod. Politics is always a dangerous subject, but this isn’t exactly politics, I guess.
He frowns and shifts around slightly in his wheelchair. “Are you going to vote?” he repeats, a bit louder this time, every word slow and distinct…for all the wold as I am the one with hearing loss. Apparently, he wants a real answer: the kind spoken out loud. Suddenly I am reminded of all our previous conversations, conversations that reveal his still-fierce passion for social justice. His face is lined, his skin wrinkled and his body weak…but his eyes still shine brightly, all the more intense for the rest that has been forced upon him.
“Yes,” I say. “As much as I grumble, I’m not sure it would be…appropriate for me to pass. I mean, there have been too many people who have fought, died and sacrificed for my freedom for me to just sit on my ass at home.”
“That’s right,” he says approvingly. “Ignore the noise, forget all these negative ads and remember: what is your right will always be your responsibility. I’m gonna kick your butt if I find out you didn’t vote, little girl!”

∞oOo∞

As a CNA, I often feel powerless. I am at the bottom of the food chain: in a position to see many wrongs, but not in a position that makes it easy to correct those wrongs. There’s only so much I can do, and what is within my power often seems so small: nothing more than a trickle of water seeping between the stones of a dam. Why bother? Why keep speaking out, why keep writing and trying, breaking my heart as often as not? I am only one CNA, one American with one voice and one vote. What difference can I possibly make? How can my voice and my vote make any difference whatsoever?

The worst part about the systems and mindsets that make us feel powerless: they make us forget what little power we have. When we listen to the voices that whisper “Why bother?”, when we throw up our hands and walk away with our words all left unspoken, it is not one voice and one vote that has been silenced. It is nothing less than a victory for the systems and persons who would indeed make us powerless. Feeling powerless is the first step to actually becoming powerless. Perhaps it is not so much, this freedom of speech and this freedom to vote. Perhaps I am not so very important, but I am one of many.

Silence spreads like wildfire…but so does liberty. I am an American…I have the freedom to vote, to have my voice heard in the election of my leaders. No matter who is elected, I am not powerless. I will not be silenced or shackled, either because I am a woman or because I am “just” a CNA. My voice has weight and my opinion has value no matter my socioeconomic standing. I urge you, my fellow CNAs…do not be silent. Do not forget the power that has been bought for us by the sacrifices of those who have come before, and the sacrifices we ourselves have made. Always remember: what is our right is also our responsibility. We are not powerless and we will not be made to feel so anymore.
Go out and vote. Make your voice heard. Do not be swayed by fear or fancy rhetoric. Do your research and make up your own mind about which candidates you wish to be your leaders. And never, ever forget: no matter who wins this election, it does not absolve us of our responsibility to keep speaking out for those who cannot. What is our right will always be our responsibility…what wrongs we see, we must work to right. Vote for peace and prosperity, for compassion and communication, for empathy and intelligence. Vote for the whichever candidate you feel will be more willing to embrace the qualities we have learned to value most as caregivers of the elderly and disabled.

Do not surrender your ability to think for yourself to the politicians. Our freedom to vote is our birthright, so let it be your reason and not your fear that cast the ballot. Freedom…it’s far too precious to waste on an opinion that someone told you was the right thing.

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.

The Illusion of Normal

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Alice

If life has taught me anything, it is that there is far more beneath the surface than meets the eye. Most of us wear our damages and wounds on the inside where they are safely tucked away from the view of others. This allows the illusion of normality for some as they walk through their 9-5 lives, thinking and engaging on a surface level with all whom they come in contact. 

     Some people cling to that normalcy as if it were a lifeboat that will save them from the crashing waves of genuine uncertainty that threaten us all from time to time. But is it real? I mean, what IS normal, other than a setting on a drier?

      These very normal people are the ones who walk past my client and I in a store and look at her with a mixture of pity and fear, as if they very sight of a woman with obvious physical challenges reminds them that their illusion of normal can smashed in an instant. They are the same people who would pay an obligatory visit to a relative once or twice a year at the facility for which I worked and try unsuccessfully to hide their distaste for the residents that weren’t their family members. As if my people were nothing more than their diagnosis or age.

       For a long time, I felt actual rage at the short-sightedness of these normal people who are more likely to grumble about people looking for handouts when they see a homeless vet than actually consider the fact that he is a human being with a story just like the rest of us. It would ruin my peace of mind. The CALLOUSNESS of it. But then it hit me. They don’t even realize that’s what they are doing. It’s a subconscious reaction to distance themselves from such potential outcomes. They HAVE to see the sick or poor or ill or elderly as somehow lacking or broken in order to protect the mental image they have of themselves. After all, any other insight would force them to accept the fact that we are all one cataclysmic event from becoming what they most fear.

       Ah, but I know what they don’t, both through my own life experiences and those for whom I have been blessed enough to have in my care. I know that when you are forced to accept life as it is, you learn how to create a new normal. You learn how to adapt. What my residents and clients have shown me time and time again is that life is a balance. When one ability is lost, another is gained. My client lost mobility, but she gained perspective, perseverance, a higher tolerance for pain. She has a level of empathy for others that she said was a bit lacking before her health failed her and never once have I heard her say that life is not fair. Think about that. It is truly humbling.

    I have seen people in perfect health have a complete meltdown over a coupon in a grocery store. I have heard countless versions of “why me’s” from those who have all they could possibly need to be happy.  If “normal” means taking life for granted until catastrophe teaches you otherwise, I’d just as soon learn from the outcasts.

The Life Coach

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Alice

“I wish I could run around with my grandkids,” my client said wistfully, “I feel like half a Grandma.” I sighed to myself. It isn’t the first time she’s mentioned such things. I wish I could help my husband clean out the store. I wish I wasn’t such an ordeal to everyone. I wish…I wish.  It made me so sad! What could I say to any of that? Sure, I could be a supportive listener. People say that’s helpful. I get that. I do!…but I’m wired to try and solve problems and I couldn’t shake the idea that I wasn’t quite as powerless to help as I thought I was.x

       So I went home and obsessed about it, as I am prone to do. After about an hour of over complicating a fairly simple problem, I had a EUREKA! moment. HAIR! I know absolutely nothing about hair. I’m lucky if mine meets a hairbrush every other day. I know nothing about a LOT of things! Fashion! Apparently my Blossom hat is no longer en vogue. Who knew?! I’ll tell you who knew! My client! She taught cosmetology! She raised two daughters and has an eye for fashion! My limited cooking abilities give me ample opportunity to ask for recipes! She loves to read and could quote Shakespeare. THIS was what I need to be focusing on! Instead of feeling sad for her, I needed to remind her of all the things she could still do, not with words but with action! 

     The next day, I pulled up a chair as she ate breakfast. I looked her straight in the eyes and said with complete honesty, “My life has gone nuts! I’m going to New Orleans for a once in a life time opportunity, I’m on a big writing kick, I’m learning water colors, my paintings are hanging in a coffee shop, I drove back and forth to Long Island twice this year, walls that I spent years building have melted in a matter of days by the person who motivated me to build them in the first place, and I don’t know how to cook a steak. Most of that is amazing but it’s all overwhelming. You are now officially my life coach.”

       She recognized the honesty and knew immediately that I wasn’t being condescending. I could see her eyes light up as we looked at pictures of dresses and discussed what would be appropriate for public speaking. I asked her for recipes. I sought her guidance. I watched and listened and learned. It was mutually beneficial. That shift, she wasn’t my client. She wasn’t her diagnosis. She was the teacher and I was the student. By stepping out of my comfort zone, embracing my own vulnerabilities, and expressing my flaws and fears, I gave her the opportunity to be genuinely helpful and I gave myself the opportunity to gain some clarity. Such a simple solution. Living with purpose and feeling useful are basic human needs. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that we are here for a reason.

Footnotes in history

Sunflower

May

Lots of people get Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day confused.
I confess, I’m one of them.
“Morning, Mr. V!” I say in a bright, cheery and sleepy voice. “It’s your day! Happy Memorial Day!”
“No,” says Mr. V, his voice quiet, sad. “It’s not my day–that would be Veteran’s Day later in the year. Today is my buddy ____’s day. He’s the one who never came home from Germany.”
“Oh,” I say.
“He’d have liked you,” Mr. V continues thoughtfully.
“Really?”
“Yeah, you’re pretty. He never met a pretty woman he didn’t flirt with.”
“Sounds like you two had a lot in common,” I grumble.
“Oh,” Mr. V laughs in response, “he was better at it than me. I only think I’m smooth…he actually was. Used to hate going out with him, he’d charm all the girls and none of them would even look at the rest us!”
As I get him ready for the day, Mr. V continues to regal me with stories of his friend and the war. I linger in his room longer than maybe I should, listening to him, letting his words paint a vivid picture of a time that is quickly becoming ancient history.

It occurs to me, quite suddenly, that after my generation, there very well might be no more caregivers for those who fought in World War 2. There are fewer and fewer of those veterans left; more and more pass away every year. I know that time period has been documented extensively and there is no shortage of movies, books and other stories based around the events of the Second World War. The war will likely never be forgotten.
My residents, with their personal stories and their personal losses might be.
That’s just the way history works: not every name will be remembered, not every story will be passed on. Not every soldier gets a movie made about his life; most become footnotes in the history books. In twenty more years, Mr. V’s friend might only be a name on a wall, a faded clipping of an old newspaper. And if his story is recorded in some format, it won’t be the same. It won’t be the same experience as sitting on the bed next to his buddy, hearing him stumble his way through memories gone fuzzy with time, but still raw with the pain.

I know that there will be other caregivers sitting next to other soldiers of other wars, listening to their stories. But they won’t be from World War 2, such a massive turning point in the history of our world. They won’t be about my friend’s friend.
That can’t be helped. You can’t stop time or slow it down. But while the stories and faces will change, I hope this tradition won’t; this simple, powerful act of sitting down and listening with all your focus. Honoring those lost in war by taking the time to listen to their friends who lived.

Happy Memorial Day, a bittersweet holiday if ever there was one.

Eye of the Beholder

Sunflower

May

Well, I think, this is awkward.
I’m sitting at an assisted dining table, helping two of my total-care residents eat their lunch. Behind me is an independent table and an interesting conversation I can’t help but overhear.
“She’s not as pretty as she she used to be,” says Mr. J, slurping his so-called soup. Mr. N shrugs and dips his sandwich in the soup.
“I don’t know about that,” he replies. “She just looks tired to me. Probably didn’t put her makeup on this morning so she could sleep in a bit.”
I glance over my shoulder, wondering if I should be offended if the woman under discussion is me. I’m spared that decision when I see that both men have their eyes fixed on the aide a few tables away. If I’m honest, she is looking a bit rough…but pretty good for someone who has pulled three double shifts in the last ten days. Her eyes are dull, with deep shadows beneath them and her body seems imprinted with weariness. She’s sitting in a slightly hunched posture and every so often she shakes herself vigorously, as if she’s trying to keep from dozing off. Okay, hold the “as if”. That’s exactly what she’s doing, having just worked a double yesterday. It’s the look we’ve all wore: that distinct look of utter exhaustion. I’ll probably be wearing that look tomorrow, as today is my turn for a double.
I just hope I’m as cheerful and pleasant tomorrow as she is today; exhausted she might be, but not surly, not short-tempered with the residents.
“Such a shame,” sighs Mr. J, still slurping. “She was such a looker before. I swear, there seem to be fewer girls here and they get plainer every week. Soon we aren’t going to have anything pretty to look at.”
Okay…now I’m really offended. I grit my teeth and tell myself it isn’t worth it. Let it go. Be professional. Then I spin around anyway at the sound of a loud splash, just in time to see the soggy remains of a sandwich riding a wave of tomato soup across the table. And it’s either a case of really good aim or laser-guided karma because the whole mess is sweeping towards Mr. J.
“Oh for the love of God,” Mr. N says, loudly enough that I am now not the only one staring at him, “how stupid are you? I think she’s the most beautiful sight in the world…when she’s working so hard to take care of us.”
By the time he’s finished, the wave of tomato soup has reached the edge of the table. The wave becomes a waterfall, then a puddle as it hits the floor…thanks to quick reflexes, I had managed to jump to my feet and pull Mr. J away just in time.
Mr. N glowers at me and I’m suddenly thinking that it was aim and not accident.
“My goodness,” he drawls. “You move like lightning, honey. You better slow down and conserve your energy for that extra shift tonight. Can you get me a new plate?”
But I don’t have to. The cook is already approaching us, a new plate in hand and I can’t help but notice that this sandwich looks…well, bigger.
Mr. J notices too, a scowl etching itself on his face. Mr. N just grins at him and pointedly tells the cook that she looks gorgeous.

Beauty is the eye of the beholder, they say.
But the eye of the beholder does more, I think, than merely judge beauty: they also serve as mirrors, reflecting back a view of yourself. And there are very few mirrors that show as flattering a reflection than the eyes of a resident, grateful and appreciative of the sacrifices you make for them.
That’s just one of the reasons why, under the frustration and beyond the stresses, I love my job. In this world of constant pressure to look “sexy”, my residents remind me that true beauty isn’t something you can put on in the morning.

The Red Dress

MaySunflower

It’s one of those conversations that comes up naturally in the most unusual of circumstances. Well, “unusual” as defined by mainstream American culture: I’m giving Mrs. R a shower and we’re talking about my Amazon wish list.
I tell her about this beautiful dress I found, how it is just gorgeous but I’m just not sure where I would wear it.
“I don’t know,” I sigh. “There’s probably a better use of $50 than a dress I’ll probably never wear.” She doesn’t reply and I keep talking. “It is beautiful, though. Say, if you could wear anything you wanted, anything at all no matter how out-of-style or out-of-place, what would it be?”
She looks up from washing her chest, a sad little smile twisting her face into a look of deep longing. “I had this dream,” she says quietly, “had it since I was a girl. I was going to buy this red dress, like what they wore in the 1950’s, tight bodice and full skirt that just hits the knees and swirls when you walk. I was going to put on the dress and go dancing through a door to meet my husband. But Mom and Dad were poor and my husband…he always said we had better use of that money than a fancy dress. Always had bills to pay and money to save for retirement. We’re working for our future, he said; now he’s dead and I’m in a nursing home. Some future,” she sighs.
For someone who prides myself on my skill with words, I often find that I just don’t have any.
“Little girl, if you want that dress, you buy that dress. Don’t ever assume the best is yet to come. If I could do one thing over in my life, I would go back and buy that damn dress. If you do buy yours,” she adds wistfully, “would you wear it here so I can see?”

Maybe it’s funny, maybe it’s not–but in my experience, the elderly do not preach caution. My residents rarely tell me why I shouldn’t do something (except if it’s why I shouldn’t get them out of bed for breakfast). No…their advice to me, plentiful and often unasked-for, is to live and live bravely. Do things, go out and make memories. Try something new. Don’t work to hard.
Don’t wait for good things to come in the future, because your future might be a wheelchair in a nursing home. “Live now,” they tell me, “live now and tell me the stories.”

Embracing the Moment

photo

 

Alice

When I was green and just starting in this field, a resident informed me that youth was wasted on the young. At the time I dismissed it as just something that elderly people say. It took a while before I realized how wrong I was.

      I did notice how little it took for my residents to be truly grateful. With short staffing and terrible patient ratios, it sometimes feels like all we hear are complaints. On the days where the routine on the floor is disrupted, it can feel impossible to please anyone, but that’s as a collective. Individually, their requests were perfectly reasonable.

       On the floor, a request for a cup of coffee is trumped by a resident who is a fall risk’s urgent need to use the restroom. A request for an extra pillow will have to come after taking vitals. We are constantly prioritizing the needs that have to be met and something always falls by the wayside.

       In such a setting, forgetting a cup of coffee seems a forgivable offense, but then again you would be hard pressed to get me going in the morning without my coffee. I had a freak out just the other day because I didn’t realize I had run out. Coffee is a vital part of my daily routine and my whole day is thrown off without it. Is a day without coffee a “forgivable offense” to me? Not so much. Furthermore, the sheer joy and gratitude I’ve seen a simple cup of coffee with two creams delivered in a timely manner bring a resident is downright humbling. I don’t even notice my coffee until I run out.

      The ability to be fully in the moment is a gift that comes in the beginning and end of our days. It’s true that I have countless stories of residents who flew off the handle over some innocent mistake but I have just as many stories of residents who were deeply moved by moments that I take completely for granted. They don’t just drink their coffee on automatic pilot. They SAVOR it.

      I waste so much time worrying and fretting over imaginary scenarios in my head. I have wished away shifts and boring dates. I have missed opportunities right in front of my face because I wasn’t paying attention; countless moments wasted. It is through working with those who have a lifetime of experience that I learned this.

     What would they give to have the moments that I so carelessly wish away? To have the ability and freedom to come and go as they choose? I am still not great at being in the moment, but I am learning. It takes practice. Now every morning I make it a point to stop and savor my coffee. It’s a good start.