You do not like anyone to see you looking less than impeccable. You don’t remember that right now, so I will remember it for you. Your perfectly coiffed hair in the framed photos and closet full of matching Alfred Dunner suits tell me what you cannot. So I wash you up, despite your grumbling and put on your favorite turquoise outfit. I hand you the lipstick and steady your hand as you apply it and the previous frustration you felt melts away to a smile. I know you. You can’t make it too easy for me and at the end of our morning routine, you look pretty and I look like a sweaty mess. You chuckle and say thanks.
You have lucid moments when you realize that your mind isn’t working the way it should. These moments break your heart and mine, as I watch you work through the reality that your mom died decades ago and your sister is in another country only to forget again by my next shift. Right or wrong, I wish those particular moments of clarity wouldn’t come; that you wouldn’t have to grieve anew every time your mind decides to tear that scab off. There is nothing I can do but walk with you through it. Thankfully, those dark, cobwebby moments are few and far between. You are my night owl, regaling me with your extensive knowledge of music. The mind is an amazing thing. You struggle with the concept of saliva and yet you know every word to countless songs from Mack the Knife to Proud Mary. It is your love of music and dance that inspired the idea of early morning dance parties. You never like for me to be out of your line of vision, and yet when another resident is having a difficult day, you are the first to sit beside them and hold their hand. You are able to put aside your own anxiety for others.
You are a natural born healer. You were a medic in a war in which you never killed a single person. You told me that your calling was to bring life not to take it. You have told me this countless times and I never tire of hearing it. You are bi-lingual. You are witty. You get frustrated sometimes because you spent a life time caring for others and it’s hard when you realize that you need care too, now. I tell you that what little help we do for you is nothing compared to the wealth of wisdom you bring us every day. You are dapper and do not like to leave your apartment without your hat…your chapeau. That’s French. You taught me that.
You are an artist. Your apartment is a gallery of your work. As your thought process changes with this disease, so does your artwork and yet I see you in all of the paintings. You are head strong and I have to resort to some creative trickery to get you to allow me to help you at all, not that you need much help. I know it isn’t that you don’t want assistance as much as you don’t want the reminder that you need a little help every now and then. I get that. I would feel the same way. And you are far too young for this. I am mad at the disease for you, but rather than focus on that, I look at your art work and remind you how amazing you are. How incredibly talented you are. How lucky I am to have such a friend. And I mean every word of it.
At the very heart of what we do as caregivers is the art of knowing. This is a tiny sample of what I’ve learned about those in my care over the years. Knowing them as individuals not only helps me improve the quality of care for them, but also deeply enriches my own life. I am a better person for having known each and every person who has ever been in my care. They are more than a room number. They are more than a diagnosis or level of mental acuity or a two person transfer. They are people; flawed, nuanced, interesting, complex people who have lived full lives. As they walk through their sunset years, they certainly have earned the right to be known as something more than room 346.
Working the graveyard shift on a memory care unit…there really are no adequate words to describe the experience. In many ways, it’s the most challenging experience I’ve ever had in this field. I have twelve residents on my hall and on any given shift there are four to six that won’t sleep. It’s a crapshoot whether it will be an all night dance party full of fun or a nightmarish landscape over which I have little control. Mostly, it’s some combination of the two.
“I think I’m dead.”
“You’re not dead.”
“I might be.”
“ You’re not.”
“Ok. If you say so.”….I have that exchange at least once a week. This particular resident is very matter of fact about the whole idea that she might be a ghost, as if she finally figured out why her life has become so strange and unrecognizable. Death, however final, at least made some sense to her. The disease that has ravaged her mind and slowly robs her of who she once was makes no sense at all. She is still in there, though. Her caustic wit cuts through her mental fog; a beam that lights brief paths to moments of clarity in which who she is underneath the Alzheimer’s disease shines through. She loves music. All kinds of music and she loves to dance. She hates tuna fish. If she doesn’t trust you, she lets you know it. She doesn’t respond well to formality, preferring warmth to surface level pleasantries and when she laughs, it is full throated and from the soul rather than polite titters hidden modestly behind a handkerchief. This is a woman who does not bother with giggles. She laughs like she means it and I love that about her.
Those are the moments that I hold onto when the bad nights come; when my people wander in the darkest hours of the night, confused and afraid. When she is having a difficult night, she doesn’t sleep.
“I’m frightened!”, she tells me. Eight hours straight of I’m frightened. And when I’m on a round and out of her sight that fright turns to panic until I am finished helping another resident and she can lay eyes on me again. The best I can do to help her through those nights is to continuously remind her of who she is; that she hates tuna fish and loves music and loves to dance. That helps some, for a little while…but I have eleven other residents who also need me and when three or four of them are having a difficult night at the same time I feel like I’m drowning in my own powerlessness. I can’t cure dementia. I can’t bring back dead mothers or lost dogs from their childhood. In the light of day, with the activity and structure of the daily routines, redirecting is much easier. At three in the morning, it is much more difficult to escape the ghosts of the mind. That’s true for me, so I can’t imagine how hard it is for them.
When I first started on this hall, those shifts were so emotionally exhausting that by the time I punched out, I was feeling something very close to despair. I do not do despair very well. I haven’t for a very long time. Despair leads to giving up and that is quite simply not an option. Besides, those were only the shifts when it seemed that everyone was having a bad night at once and as painful as they were for me, it was exponentially worse for those in my care who were actually living through it.
So much of this field is trial and error. I decided to go back to my basics; ideas and tools I learned years ago when I worked in memory care on first shift. The hours are different and as are the mental state of those in my care but certain truths transcend from day to night. Consistency is always vital in memory care. If I say I’m going to do something, I follow through. I learned my residents, their patterns and preferences and the best night time bathroom times for each one individually and developed my routine. I keep it consistent but flexible. I work around them. If a lot of my folks are restless, I have a midnight snack party and play calming music. My night owls like Law and Order. It’s funny…the can’t follow the show but they seem to remember enjoying it and that’s enough. All of this has helped a great deal.
Of course there are still really tough shifts when events seem to snowball, but they are less frequent and I am better able to deal with them. One of my favorite aspects of my work is that in order to be most effective, I have to learn continuously. Anyone who says differently isn’t doing it right. I have been blessed with the support of those who love me most, both in and out of the field. It is impossible to give up when surrounded by people who believe in you. I walk in the footsteps of those caregivers who trudged the path before me and passed on what they know. At the end of the day, good or bad shift, daylight or in the still of the night, I love what we do. I love writing about what we do. I love that I see the value in what we do and I love those in our care for whom we do it.
I wanted to write about memory care. I really did, about how it feels to come full circle and how much I love the challenge of constantly adapting but that post is going to have to wait. As much as I would LIKE to write about my new job assignment, I feel COMPELLED to tackle a different topic: bullying. On the surface, it seems a simple enough problem to discuss. Don’t be a jerk. ‘Nough said…except that as with so many other issues, bullying is a deeply rooted systemic problem that will never be solved without an open and honest examination of how and what it truly means.
Most work places have a zero tolerance policy for physical conflict. That’s a pretty low baseline. I’ve never actually met anyone who showed up for work one day and randomly started punching people, so as far as I can tell that is a cover your ass policy that does little to nothing to curb the problem. If things have gotten so bad that there has to be a no punching rule then somebody has dropped the ball somewhere.
Did you hear?…Well, First shift…If second shift…the new girl…How many conversations start like that? It catches faster than a forest fire and suddenly everyone is angry over something they heard second or third hand. Everyone gets in on the action, morale goes down, quality of care goes down, communication becomes petty and useless and I feel like I’m in fifth grade again. It’s ridiculous and I am over it.
It’s modeled behavior. Supervisors act as if they are confused as to why there is chaos on the floor. It’s baffling. Of course there is dysfunction on the floor because there’s dysfunction in the office. I have yet to work in a facility where I didn’t know exactly how the supervisors felt about each other; where I didn’t know which caregivers were favored on which shift. It’s impossible not to hear the claptrap. This along with an inconsistent application of consequences inevitably causes resentments. If management doesn’t hold themselves to a higher standard, why would they expect it from those who work under them?
It’s not just caregivers that are on the receiving end either. New supervisors come in and before they even have time to adjust, a collective snap judgement is formed by the members of management who have been there longer. Suddenly everyone from the office down is berating the new kid on the block. I have to wonder, for all the criticism regularly heaped on new people, how many senior employees have reached out their hand? How many have said, “Man, I know how tough it is to be new. I remember when I first started. I know how overwhelming it can be. If I can help you or you have any questions, just let me know”? Now THAT would be a refreshing show of true leadership. Sadly, it’s much easier to bitch about a person than it is to solve a problem.
It’s rampant in the online CNA support groups too. The helpful posts and genuine questions are often buried under posts that take unnecessary digs at other people. This co-worker is lazy. That co-worker calls out. So much of it is catty, as if one can’t feel good about themselves without putting another down. It maddening and ugly and I don’t understand the point. Unless a resident is being put in harm’s way, there are better ways to solve the day to day troubles of working with others than to engage in pettiness. Those in our care handle living with cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s, and mental illness better than some caregivers handle having to stay five minutes over or putting a trash bag in a trash can; better than some supervisors handle sharing an office. It’s a little pathetic.
The truth is, I’ve never had a problem with those from other shifts who work my hall. I do my best and respect my co-workers and in return they seem to be just fine with me. Our halls run smoother because of it and those in our care get the attention and energy that would be wasted on engaging in drama. For the most part, when I put good out I get good back and I trust my own experiences rather than the gossip that runs rampant.
Be it in the workplace or out, bullying has become an epidemic that rots the best and empowers the worst of the human experience.
It is the worst kind of groupthink and it scares me how normalized it has become in now. When did it become socially acceptable to rip another person to shreds simply for disagreeing with you. A single person behaving in such a way may hurt another’s feelings, but when it becomes groups of people tearing others down, real damage is done. It is leading us down a dangerous road at breakneck speed.
We who work in Long Term Care exist in a microcosm of the outside world. Because of this we have the ability to see the damage that collective bullying is doing on a small and intimate scale within the walls of facilities. In this world, we can do something about it. We can be helpful instead of hurtful. We can lift each other up instead of knock each other around. We can speak up, even when it’s hard, even when it is to those in charge. We can choose not to engage in toxic behavior. In doing so, we will be happier, our residents will be calmer and our co-workers will have a window into better ways of handling conflict. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn these lessons on the job and use them off the clock. We can be an example for others. After all, chaos and negativity may be contagious but so is positivity and hope. The choice is ours.
Hey you. Yes! YOU, reading this. Don’t ever allow yourself to be convinced that you are less than you are. Don’t allow anyone else to define you. You are so much bigger than your mistakes, fear, and struggles. I know you’re tired. I know you sometimes ask yourself what’s the point and I know sometimes you think your best isn’t good enough. Not one of those thoughts are true. The very fact that you are reading this post shows that you are defining your position in the world of long term care rather than allowing the system to define you. I know. That’s how this whole blog began. Two caregivers found each other online and decided it was time to let the world know what it is truly like from our perspective. We are no different than you. If we can be a part of the solution, so can you.
Step one: we have to get rid of the “I’m just” mentality. I’m just a CNA. I’m just a single mom. I’m just
a high school graduate. I’m just one person. No. You are not. You are a dynamic human being with ideas and value. Your worth is not to be measured by something as simple as a degree. You are not “just” anything. KNOWING that is the key to willingness and willingness unlocks doors you can’t even begin to imagine. Willingness produces action and action produces change.
Step two: we have to stop letting others dictate our behavior. Everyone calls out. I’m going to call out too. Right or wrong, that thinking just excuses their reasonings for our poor pay, awful work loads and disrespect. Is it fair that the best and the worst of us are treated the same? No. Hell no. But the system sees no need to change it. They treat us as disposable. We react to being treated as disposable. They use this as an excuse to continue to treat us as disposable. Collectively, we have power over this. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: mountains move from the bottom. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We need consistent and collective moves forward and that will not happen until we excel. Until WE define what we do and how well we do it. Until we become the leaders we wish we were provided, it’s going to be business as usual. We have to stop bullying. It’s a problem from the top down. I should not know what the office people think about the new nurse. But I do. It’s no different than the floor. The new kid on the block always has it rough. We can lead by example there. We can help the new workers, regardless of their position, rather than tear them apart. We can help other shifts instead of bitching about them. Having worked all shifts, I know they each have their challenges. We can not involve ourselves in malicious gossip like twelve year old mean girls. If we feel someone isn’t pulling their weight, we can discuss it with them like grown ups. We can speak up for one another when necessary and we can speak up for the residents. We do not have to get drawn into the drama, even when those in supervisory positions often seem to be the ones stirring it up. We can CHOOSE not to play ball, to respectfully decline to participate in bullshit. In doing so, we become examples for good. We show that it doesn’t take making another feel or look bad in order to look good.
Step three: Never give up. It may seem like no good can come from all this effort. I know I’ve felt that way. Press on regardless. Change happens slowly. It takes patience and sacrifice and even then, the satisfaction of seeing the outcome of all the effort isn’t guaranteed. Trust me, it makes a difference. Once, I was a whistle blower. My entire life was thrown into turmoil. I lost my job. Had to start from scratch and couldn’t see how any good came of it, but as it turned out, it wasn’t just their one facility that had glaring and dangerous violations that had gone unchecked, but several. By shining a light on one, all of them were on the radar. It was three years before I found out that my action had any impact. I was green in the field and naive at the time. Now I realize the most impactful change in this system is not an explosion but the slow and steady burn of passion that motivates this blog. The simple act of speaking your truth consistently will leave a mark. So leave your mark. Write your own piece. Email it to us for posting. Or reach out your hand to another person in this field. Teach with patience. And know we are all in this together and you are not alone.
I get so tired sometimes. I want to shrink from this world that seems to subsist and thrive on anger, panic and fear. Has it always been this way and I’ve just been oblivious to the fever of it or is this some new beast fueled by everyone’s absolute certainty that they are right? The days of context and nuance seem to be gone for the moment and shades of grey no longer exist. Black or white. Right or wrong. Bottom line thinking for an end results world.
I am never very certain about very much. In my experience, that way lies madness. I have certain ethical guidelines and passions that anchor me and I try to keep my mind open to learning from others who have different points of view. Work has been vital for my sanity in this social climate where people seem to be filling some inner need by yelling at one another and coming up with shallow, half-hearted and blame-filled excuses to the deep and complex problems that our society is facing. I guess that’s easier and less satisfying than putting aside anger and wounded egos in order to come together and effectively work toward common solutions. We currently live in a world where everyone wants to be the boss but no one wants to lead.
Those of us who work in Long Term Care are no strangers to the damage such a management style causes. It’s flat out ineffective. The best supervisors are the ones who roll up their sleeves regardless of who is watching. If I only see you when state is in the building, I’m less likely to trust you around those in my care. I have more respect for an LPN who will help me calm a resident who is lashing out in fear than a career administrator with degrees on the wall who’s first solution is Ativan because she’s about to give a tour to a potential new client and wants the hall orderly. That is the difference between a leader and a boss. Because I find my own personal standards of quality care to be much higher than what is expected of us, I have no need for a boss. I learn from leaders, however, and that makes them as invaluable as they are rare.
I decided to step back from Facebook for a little while. Every other status I read is angry. Every article posted has completely different facts cherry picked to enrage or validate you depending on what side of the given position you take. They all agree that everything is the absolute worst. The only difference is who they believe is to blame…and all of that is crap. Cynical, self serving crap wrapped in a bow made of ego.
But, Alice! Aren’t you concerned about the state of affairs?! Of course I am, possibly shocked and appalled reader, but here’s the thing…this is NOWHERE NEAR as bad as it’s been. In my years in this field I’ve cared for people of color who actually lived through the civil rights era. I’ve cared for a Vietnam vet who lost his sight, and a WWII vet who lost his leg. I’ve cared for people who were children during the Great Depression and for people who lived through the Cold War. I’ve had women in my care who lived in a time when it was more socially acceptable to be an abused wife than a divorced woman. Collectively, we survived all of that. As a society, we have faced our worst behaviors and bit by bit we have grown from them; progressed step by painful step forward. I refuse to believe that this…this angry, entitled, backwards thinking reality we are all actively creating is going to stick. I have more faith in us than that.
Individuals are all more than one thing. Are my residents simply their Alzheimer’s disease? Or prostate cancer? Or schizophrenia? Are they not bigger than that? Am I not more than my political affiliation? Is it not beautiful that we are all people who bleed the same? It is a combination of different ideas and individual experiences that gives life it’s richness. When did we decide that we should only surround ourselves with those who look, think, believe and behave exactly like us? How can we possibly come up with and solutions to vastly complex issues without the benefit of diverse ideas and the freedom to dissent without fear?
So I would like to thank every single person who has ever been in my care for teaching me gratitude and perspective. Life is too short to waste on fear and anger over troubles that we create or stir up in our minds before they even occur. I would also like to thank you for living through adversity and sharing your stories so I know what courage looks like. I would like to thank my fellow caregivers who adapt to the reality on the floor rather than the one we are told to expect. We come together to make the most of what is rather than complain about what should be…ok to be fair sometimes we do both but for the most part we are about action. It is a diverse world on the floor, full of people from all walks of life with a variety of skills and reasons for being in this field. Despite what some may think, we cannot all be painted with one brush and for that I am incredibly thankful. This field has honed a strength in me that would not have developed otherwise and directed a passion for purpose toward a path where it would be put to good use. I get tired, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I get these reminders at least five nights a week. I can step back from the combative and fear filled world online and reorient myself to the world in which I live.
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.