Tag Archives: certified nurse assistant

Unsafe at any Weight

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Minstrel

I became a CNA at an age at which most people are retired. By this time most CNAs have backs, knees, shoulders that are broken down or on their way to that. On my first day on the job, the CNA I was shadowing asked, “HOW old are you? You’re never going to be able to do this job.” Biologically speaking, I could have been a grandmother to some aides. But I was in better shape than many, in terms of weight and flexibility. Some aides arrived at work groaning, “My back is killing me!” “My knees are soooo bad today.”

 In reality I could do everything a CNA needed to do. But there was one thing I couldn’t / wouldn’t do: move a two-person assist alone. At first the experienced aides helped me. But soon they expected me to care for these residents without help, as they did. There seems to be a machismo culture among aides: “I can do this on my own.” I was saved by the fact that our unit supervisor had posted a list of all residents who needed the assistance of two aides to be moved. When I needed help I asked for it and was given it. But other aides wouldn’t ask me or each other for help, except in the toughest cases.

Who is a two-person assist? A person doesn’t have to weigh much to be a dangerous dead weight when she needs to be moved. Even frail, thin persons become dead weight when they don’t have the bodily strength to stand or the cognitive capacity to follow instructions. The CDC, OSHA and other organizations have developed algorithmic guidelines which state in effect that unless a person is both fully weight-bearing and able to cooperate in the action (that is, able to understand what is needed and able and willing to do what is needed), then the resident needs two persons, sometimes more, and sometimes also requires mechanical equipment, to be lifted, repositioned, transferred. Fellow aides: How often is this the rule of thumb where you work? Given staffing levels, how many of you have time to stop to help others with residents who should, under the guidelines, have the assistance of at least two persons when they are moved? How many of your co-workers have time to help you?

Unfortunately, as far as I’ve been able to learn, failure to provide adequate staffing to ensure two-person assists for all non-weight-bearing residents isn’t an OSHA violation that has any penalty attached to it. This is a guideline and not a mandate. Thus LTC homes might not be as worried about compliance with these guidelines as they are about Medicare rules. But some states might have tighter rules. And guidelines do have some weight in policy-making in LTC homes.

Despite my facility’s two-person assist list and despite all the guidelines, many aides chugged right along, lifting residents without help. Both the resident and the aide are at risk of injury (or at least distress), but aides insist on flying solo. Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. CNAs: Let’s call a truce with our aching bodies! It’s worth a try to work with our unit supervisors to develop a two-person-assist list, using it to transfer residents more safely and comfortably.

A Matter of Death and Life

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Yang

The subject of death comes up often in this line of work. On this blog, Alice and May have visited it on more than one occasion. They have shared how they experienced losing residents they’ve known and cared for, and how they cope with the deep sense of personal loss. These experiences and feelings are echoed every single day in the hallways of LTC facilities and on social media. Death and loss are realities that all caregivers have to deal with at some point. For some, it becomes too much to bear and they leave the field.

Death is also at the heart of the negative public perception of nursing homes. The term itself, nursing home, evokes images of forsaken and forgotten souls, a place where we “stick” people when they are no longer of any use and we don’t want to be bothered with what’s left of them. That even facilities that offer good care and where the residents seem content, are still essentially gilded human warehouses, nice places to go and wait for the inevitable. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Those of us who work in direct care know that the reality is not quite that dreary. While we can be the staunchest critics of the nursing home industry – because of what we know about the very real problems – we also know that these places are and can be so much more than just human warehouses. We know that not everyone who enters them is prepared to simply submit and waste away. That sometimes people who have experienced severe neglect on the outside can actually rally after admission. Good medical care, proper diet, therapy, and a sense of community and belonging, can go a long way in restoring a sense of wellbeing and hope. That yes, even here, life goes on.

While good care is essential, it does not address the deeper question of a meaningful existence. Here, in the final stages of life, where comfort is often regarded as the highest value and the will to live runs on sheer momentum, the question arises – and I’m going to be blunt – why bother? Why bother to go on when you no longer feel productive or useful? Why bother when you feel as though you’ve become nothing but a burden? Why bother when you’ve lost so much that you hold so dear? And the toughest question of all: why bother when the end result is going to be the same no matter what you do?

Good caregivers do all they can to address the “why bothers?” Through our awareness of our elders as individuals and by engaging them emotionally, we assure them that if nothing else, they still matter because they matter to us. We can’t give them back everything and we can’t reach everyone, but there are opportunities to make a real difference and we morally obligated to make the most of them.  

Still, there is that nagging reality always present in background, the sense of doom and meaninglessness associated with our mortality.

But we are not powerless. First, we have to reject the conventional view of aging: that the final stage of life is less meaningful than everything that comes before it. We need to embrace the idea that we can change, grow and develop right up to the end. And we must stop downgrading the intrinsic value of moments that are experienced during this stage of life. Even to the end, we can retain our capacity to be surprised or fascinated or enthralled, and to value the comic absurdity of life. And we can still lose ourselves in these moments and share them with those around us without reference to some ultimate meaning.

Second, we have to rebel against death itself. Not against its reality, but against its hold on us; against the idea that our fate to die must inform our actions and constrain how we experience life. We need not be held captive to the ego’s revulsion to nonexistence. By liberating ourselves from death’s grip on our being, we are giving ourselves permission to really live.

For our elders, it’s not enough that we tell them that life is still worth living.  Instead, as caregivers we must discover what that means to them, in the most specific, practical terms. We must facilitate and share with them, when we can, those things they find meaningful. Each time we do this, we are joining them in their rebellion against death and boldly answer the question “why bother?” And we celebrate with them one more victory in life.

“I’m Just Doin’ My Job”

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Minstrel

One of my all-time favorite movie lines was spoken by Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.  Luke, the non-conforming prisoner in a tough southern prison, refuses to accept the prison’s status quo.  His conduct is a cascade of rebelliousness, until finally the warden orders Luke to “the box.”  The box is a small tin-roofed building, the size of an outhouse, under the blazing sun in the middle of the hot, dry prison yard.  After Luke spends twenty-four punishing hours in the box, the guard releases him.  As he does he says, “Sorry Luke, I’m just doin’ my job.  Ya got to appreciate that.”  Luke replies,  “Nah, callin’ it your job don’t make it right, Boss.”   

Calling it our job doesn’t make things right.  Among the most pernicious problems in long-termcare homes is staffing shortages.  With a census of 25 to 35 residents or patients needing skilled nursing and/or dementia care, there might be only three to five aides scheduled to work a shift.  (Then there are the last-minute call-outs).  If the aide is lucky, very lucky, she may have only five or six persons to care for.  The more frequent reality is having seven to ten persons needing care.  Remember that cacophony of call bells that May wrote about?  Blame it on short-staffing.  And the resident pleading for you to take her to the toilet?  Oops, it’s already too late…  The resident teetering perilously as we rush to prevent a fall? … And the time you lifted a non-ambulatory person by yourself because there was no one around to help?  What about those wheelchair bound residents who haven’t been taken out to feel the fresh air in weeks?  The hits just keep on comin’.   And we keep right on keepin’ on, because it’s our job; right?   

No, it isn’t.  We simply can’t do our jobs as CNAs adequately when we’re so understaffed.  What most determines the quality of care is the staff-to-resident ratios (‘duh’).  I challenge anyone to find an aide who disagrees with this.   Yes, staff need to be trained in good care practices.  Yes, we need to have certain supplies available (soap, towels, functioning hospital beds, appealing food, etc.).  But the key to quality care, to person-centered care is PERSONS.  Staff.  

We continue to work in short-staffed conditions we know violate our residents’ right to good care.  (See medicare.gov for a description of rights of persons in nursing homes.)  If we ‘complain’ to management about short staffing (and that’s how it’s viewed, as a petty complaint), we’re told sweetly that the staffing levels meet the state requirements.  And that’s probably true, because industry lobbyists have made sure that state regulators don’t burden the long-term-care industry with costly staffing requirements.

We complain about these deplorable conditions all the time.  As CNAs we’re mandated reporters of abuse.  (I guess we’d better not think about that one too much!)  But we tolerate abuse that residents endure as a result of understaffing.  Abuse isn’t just about physical or sexual assault.  It’s also about neglect and emotional abuse.  If I neglect a call bell for so long that a resident is left to soil himself and remain in his soiled condition for hours, that is abuse.  If I say to a resident who asks to be taken to the toilet, “Janie, I just put a clean Depends on you; I can’t get you back into the Hoyer lift and take you to the toilet, you have a diaper on, you can use that,” that is abuse.  Abuse is ridiculing a resident who cries for her mother all afternoon; scolding a resident who spills her drink all over the floor; ignoring the call bell of a resident who constantly asks to be taken to the toilet minutes after the last toilet trip, because we know she ‘doesn’t really have to go.’  Well, she needs something and it’s our job as aides to find out what.  “But I don’t have time for all that.  I have seven other residents to get to.  I’m just doin’ my job.”  

So what can we do?  Unlike the workers of the 1920’s and ’30’s, we can’t go on strike to win better working conditions.  We’re caring for the sick and the frail, not assembling cars.  But if we can’t leave the floor for a sit-down strike, we can use our cell phones as weapons in the revolution for better care.  Call your county or state abuse hotline every time aides have more than six residents to care for on a shift.  (And don’t count the LPN or Medication Aide in your ratio if she isn’t providing care, even if management does.)  The state regulators aren’t always thrilled to receive reports of abuse because they are short-staffed too, and don’t have the means to investigate all complaints properly.  They don’t always to a good job, for the same reasons we don’t always: because they’re understaffed and a little intimidated by their bosses.  

Revolution isn’t about violence and nastiness. (Remember Gandhi and Mandela and Rosa Parks.)  It’s about patient persistence and never giving up as long as change is needed.  It means taking that first step.  Maybe our first step will be a phone call.  

Cueing for Caring

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Minstrel

I volunteer in a long-term care home which serves, among others, those with dementia.  The aides in this home have had dementia training and the care level is already exceptional.  I think this is because management expects the aides to…well, to care — not just to ‘provide care,’ and because management models this value.  Still, the nursing supervisor wanted a performance boost.  Training.  

Aides benefit from understanding dementia and from exposure to the best ideas on dementia care.  But what’s most important about staff education is that their new knowledge lead to new workplace habits.  Training that doesn’t result in improved care is about ‘CYA’ compliance for CMS, not about caring.  How do we ensure that training actually improves how we do our jobs?  How do we transfer the training lessons from the training site to the workplace?  As a reinforcement tool, cueing is used very effectively in memory support homes which adopt Montessori methods.  Are there some short-and-sweet (and fun) cueing tools we might use to reinforce training? 

If there were just a few practices that would transform care, I believe it’s those illustrated in the poster below.  These are tried-and-true best-care practices from experts like Teepa Snow and Naomi Feil.  Let’s try turning these ideas into cues to use where we work: nurses’ stations, employee lounges, food prep areas, in the laundry, at the time clock.  Hanging icons separately in the halls—for example, the little cheerleader—may remind us all to encourage and praise residents’ efforts.  We’d be surrounded by encouraging reminders.  Cues keep us mindful of the kind of environment that is most beneficial for all residents, especially those with dementia.  

Along with cueing, another way to reinforce training lessons is the use of rewards of some kind.   The next step is to develop a rewards program for aides who go the extra mile to use these ‘care commandments.’  This is trickier but surely warranted for aides working to create an environment that says, “We Love Our Residents.”

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It will be okay

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Rose 

It seems like every other word out of my mouth tonight was an apology.  “I’m sorry I forgot your towels.”  “I’m sorry I forgot your coffee.”  “I’m sorry it took me so long.”  “I’m sorry, but it looks like I won’t be able to do your shower tonight.”  After two years of this, I finally felt like I was starting to get the hang of things.  But this particular hall was so busy that some things just slipped through the cracks.

              Every time I feel like I’ve finally got things figured out, it seems like the universe drops a load of crazy in my lap.  Or in this case, a week of crazy.  They just filled this rehab unit up after having it closed for a few weeks due to low census, and it seems like they managed to find every demanding, picky, or needy person in town and drop them on us all at once.  Everyone who works this unit knows that it’s crazy.  We’re struggling to get the bare minimum done, and it’s starting to show.  We’ve been asking for more help for days, but it’s not going to happen.

              It’s been a while since I’ve had an assignment this busy, and it was a rough day.  I forgot Mr. A’s towels and Mrs. B’s coffee.  Mr. C’s wife and daughter were sitting in the hall just before dinner, watching me run my legs off and making sympathetic comments about how I needed more help.  Mrs. D waited over two hours for me to be able to put her to bed, and I never did get the chance to give Mrs. E her shower.  As I’m driving home, I find myself running through the day in my head, trying to pinpoint what I could have done better.

              I want to tell them that I’m busy.  That there are too many people.  That I need more help.  But I try to avoid excuses, because they don’t really change anything.  For better or for worse, this is what I’m stuck with, so I’ll figure it out.

              In the end, Mr. A and Mrs. B got their towels and coffee.  Mr. C’s family went home and I was finally able to take care of him without someone breathing down my neck.  Mrs. D got into bed, and I told Mrs. E that maybe she can request a shower tomorrow or the day after if the staff has time.  The orientee from the other hall came over to help me for the last hour, and I finally got everyone into bed.  The charting wasn’t finished, and I clocked out late, but that’s okay.  It happens.  I’ll get to try again next time.

              The truth of the medical field is that it’s hard.  Some days it feels like I’ve been put through the wringer and dropped on a sinking ship with a teaspoon to bail myself out.  I can either sink or learn to swim very quickly.  But in the end, it’s worth it.  Because when I walk into a room, they smile.  They ask how my weekend off was, or how my classes are going.  I celebrate with them when they graduate from the wheelchair to the walker.  I give them a hug goodnight and tell them I’ll see them tomorrow.

              They need me.  It’s terrifying to realize that these people are totally dependent on me to care for them.  It’s a million times more terrifying for them.  There will be good days and bad days, but I’ll figure it out, because I have to.  It will still feel like things are falling down around me, but I’ll learn to be calmer and deal with it.

              When I first started as an aide, it was hard for me to accept the fact that I can’t do everything.  That some days I was only able to get the minimum done.  I thought that I was failing, and or that there was something I was doing wrong.  But eventually I realized that everyone else was in the same boat, and that we were all just doing our best within a tough system.  I learned to cope by focusing on the good parts of my day, not the bad.

              And there were good parts today.  I was able to share a joke with Mrs. F as I readjusted her pillows and gave her something to drink.  Mr. C told me that I must like my job because I’m always smiling.  I was able to teach the new girl a few tricks she didn’t know.  Several people asked me when I would be back.  If they want me back, I must be doing all right.  I’m driving home listening to a good CD, and I have the weekend off before my classes start.

              So I’ll go home, go to bed, and come back next week to start all over.  It will be crazy, and I’ll probably mess up a few times.  But I’ll survive in the end, and I’ll find a way to make someone smile.  Just as I told Mr. C, I really do like my job.  And it will be okay. 

Comfort and Joy

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Minstrel

At the end of my first year of work as a CNA, when it came time for my job evaluation, I was asked what my job goals were.  I wrote, my goal as a CNA was for my residents to go to sleep smiling.  Whatever the rest of the day might have been like, bedtime belonged to me.  I wanted each resident to fall asleep feeling loved.  As we did the bedtime ADLs I played lullabies on my IPod.  I hoped that some positive feeling would stay with them through the night.  

How horrible it must be for a person’s last experience of the day to be one of distress because someone rushed them, tugged at them impatiently, scolded them to hurry.  Didn’t smile.  Didn’t speak to them by name, maybe hardly made eye contact. Didn’t wish the resident goodnight as they left the room.  (Didn’t kiss them goodnight!)  Dementia can be a world of isolation, confusion, fear. 

Confusion and fear, or love and joy: which will be my residents’ last companions of the day?  We all know what kind of aides we want to be.  But we let ourselves be pushed by ‘the system’ into being the kind of aides we ourselves don’t like.  Don’t!  Giving even just an extra two minutes to each resident, what a difference we might make at the end of their day.  

There must be joy!  For the sake of our residents.  And for the sake of our own joy-seeking souls.

Everything is Amazing

 

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Alice

      I don’t know how to live my life right now. EVERYTHING seems new. Opportunities abound and I feel such a potential for life’s possibilities. I started writing for this blog because I didn’t think it was ok for the system to collectively mistreat the most vulnerable among us and blowing the whistle on one facility did not have the effect I had hoped. Maybe it was providence that brought Yang, May and I together. Maybe it was Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity or meaningful coincidence. I don’t know. I only know that for me, this continuing journey has become one of the most important, most valuable of my life. This opportunity that has allowed me to be part of a creative solution and concrete change. Together, the three of us get to reach others and express ideas that have long been buried under the false notion that caregivers and by proxy, those within our care are unworthy of being heard. 

    All I have ever wanted out of my life is to leave an impact that makes this world a little better than it was before I entered it. I get to be a part of this amazing adventure with Yang and May and with all of you, our readers. What could be better than that? Add to that a blossoming relationship with a long lost love, the opportunity to help a new group of young women new to recovery, and public speaking in New Orleans, and suddenly my life is unrecognizable.

      Everything is amazing but with that comes the fear and self-doubt that always accompanies the unfamiliar for me. That’s okay too. It is in such moments that true growth occurs. While part of me wishes I could feel nothing but the good stuff, I know that there is no honesty in that.

      Today, I am willing to feel and face my fears in order to embrace life’s potential and grow from the authenticity of those feelings. I don’t know how to live my life right now. EVERYTHING is unfamiliar and that is amazing and knowing that is enough.

The Magic of Music in the Chaos of Long Term Care

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Minstrel

Being a new CNA is challenging.  Yes, in training I learned how to make a hospital bed with a mannequin in it.  To wash my hands according to procedure.  To transfer fellow trainees with a gait belt.   But now I’m in the unit, needing to transfer a dear little wheelchair-bound lady who can no longer speak and who, while petite, is a dead weight when I try to lift her.  And she is contracted.  Her arms remain tight at her side as I try to undress her.  Who is more distressed, ‘Goldie’ or me?  

Goldie, in her mid-90’s, is still a beautiful-looking woman with twinkly eyes and a smile that glows.  So as I work with her I sing “Glow little glow-worm glow and glimmer” to her.  (Are the Mills Brothers spinning in their graves?)  I’m not sure Goldie gets the words at this point, but I’m laughing as I sing and she laughs back.  She relaxes.  I open my arms wide to invite a hug and Goldie opens hers!  Now I can get her blouse off.   Mission Accomplished!  I don’t know what made me sing to Goldie that first time, except that she was such a sparkly person that being with her made me happy.   My singing is not a pretty sight.  But as one musician said to me, “They don’t care what you sound like if you love them.”    

Soon I was singing to all my residents as I did ADLs (Activities of Daily Living: bathing, dressing, toileting, eating).  Sometimes a resident would sing along.  Yes, this did mean that it took me longer than it took other aides.  One of my caregiver-mentors would say to me, “We don’t have time to talk to the residents.  We don’t have time to sing to them.”  But I persisted (quietly) and began to carry my IPOD nano and a small wireless speaker with me.  Now we had hundreds of songs, sung by the voices these residents might recognize: Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, The Mills Brothers, Judy Garland, etc. etc.  One morning as I brought residents to the dining room for breakfast I played Oh What a Beautiful Morning.  Soon the room was singing!  And smiling.  In time other aides began asking, “Do you have your music with you today?”   For one thing, I think they liked some of this old music.  And they saw that residents often became calmer and more cooperative when they felt ‘sunny.’  Music does that, connecting us to each other and to our memories.  

As my IPOD played the Marine Hymn or Anchors Aweigh, veterans walked to the dining room with new determination.  Accompanied by a waltz, a resident with unsteady legs could be coaxed to move more confidently.  Sometimes we can engage a resident with a song we know she enjoys, singing together as we walk to the toilet.  Because we’re in the midst of something pleasant, a resident might hardly notice that an ADL she usually resists is about to happen.

Some residents can no longer speak; they might no longer understand language.  The saddest reality is that some can no longer hear.  (Even then, rhythms might be felt.)  Not every musical event works every time with every resident.  Nevertheless, with many residents, music can be magical in its effect.   Music has a profound positive effect so often, that it seems crazy not to try it.  

When I am old and grey and full of sleep… (thank you Mr. Yeats), they can take my food, they can have even my books.  But I want my music.   

In the Souls of the Speechless

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Minstrel

Tom Kitwood, the English minister-turned-social-worker who pioneered the person-centered model of dementia care, believed that “…people with dementia, rather than being seen as debilitated, should be embraced for what they can teach the cognitively intact. They invite us “to return to aspects of our being that are much older in evolutionary terms: more in tune with the body and its functions, closer to the life of instinct. … in advanced Western societies, where a sense of community is often weak, the evident frailty of people with dementia generates fear; this unease is socially managed by turning the demented into nonpersons, who are warehoused in nursing homes and pathologized… .”  The problem…“is not that of changing people with dementia, or of ‘managing’ their behavior; it is that of moving beyond our own anxieties and defenses, so that true meeting can occur, and life-giving relationships can grow.”   (From Rebecca Mead’s “The Sense of an Ending,” The New Yorker., May 20, 2013.)

In 2007 my 86-year-old uncle had his first disturbing episode of confusion.  Over the next few years he became more confused and forgetful.  Eventually he needed help with what the healthcare community calls ADLs: Activities of Daily Living.  Bathing, dressing, toileting, eating. Socializing. Alleviating boredom.  Everything.  I became his caregiver.  In 2011, when I could no longer lift him after his falls, I moved my uncle to a memory-support home.  Visiting him, I found that I loved interacting with the residents.  One day when the residents gathered in the TV room, I played a Lawrence Welk DVD for the group.  Spontaneously, the residents began to tap their feet and sing.  Residents who no longer spoke, sang along.  People who couldn’t remember their own names remembered the words of the music they’d once sung or danced to.  Dementia professionals knew this, but at the time I didn’t: when other memory function is lost, the memory of music remains and can sometimes revive other memories or feelings.  Magic!  So this would be my next career: I would be a minstrel in memory care homes.  I got an accordion and became a CNA. 

Over the years I’ve had several careers and many jobs.  Each to me was an exciting adventure.  None was as transformative as this one.  For me, working among those with dementia has been, to borrow Kitwood’s word, life-giving.  

My sister would ask, “Why do you like being with those people so much?”  I’d remind my little sister: “When I visit you, you tell me, ‘Donna, you have to do something with your hair.  You need to cut your hair, color your hair, curl your hair.  And you need to get yourself some new clothes.’  When I visit Tom’s place the residents say, ‘You look beautiful today!  What a lovely outfit!  (That would be my jeans and T-shirt.)  I love your hair that way!’ ”   

But it was something else.  For those with dementia, as Kitwood discerned, instinct becomes the operative principle.   Not rationality.  Not the politeness or other filters we rely on to keep us socially acceptable and safe.  Not previously learned defense responses; these are forgotten.  Those residents were without duplicity.  They responded to kindness freely, without suspicion, without wiles.  Around them I felt freer to be myself in ways I usually didn’t.  There wasn’t the need for all that learned guardedness and reserve.  Those with dementia seem to return to a time, a place within, of more transparency.  As the great dementia-care gurus Naomi Feil and Teepa Snow tell us, those with dementia can no longer enter our world; we must enter theirs.  As we do, like them we may come closer to our own less constructed, less artificial selves.   

The experience of dementia is heartbreaking and not to be romanticized.  But I see dementia as more than a tragic incurable disease.  For me exposure to dementia has been a healing gift.  I wonder whether it’s also a final healing for those whose vulnerabilities it exposes.  Dementia takes so much.  It divests one of a lifetime of accumulated knowledge.  The ego’s accomplishments fade.  The trappings of cognition loosen.  Even identity changes.  What remains?  We have little idea of what is happening in the souls of the speechless.  But their losses parallel what Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Islamic mystics seek.  Detachment from vanities, from ambitions, from past and from future. We need only to be present to the moment. Soon this is all the person with dementia will have left. Should we see dementia’s passage as one of loss, or one of grace? 

See No Evil, Hear No Evil … Fix No Evil

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Minstrel

As aging impacts physical and cognitive health, many of us will eventually live in long-term care homes.  Thanks to poor standards of care, most people dread this prospect.  To improve care, experts advocate a person-centered model of care as an alternative to the traditional medical model.  Moving from one care model to the other calls for culture change.  Last year I visited the website of a leading culture change organization for information on their annual conference.  It was discouraging to see that among their many events, none included one of the critical elements of culture change, CNAs: our workloads, wages, and caregiving standards.  Hour after hour, day in and day out, CNAs are key caregivers.  Without us, there can be no culture change.  Yet CNAs aren’t heard.  Here is one CNA voice.

I first became familiar with LTC homes when a family member needed care.  I explored many places to find him a good home, then visited him frequently.  Since then I’ve worked in LTC homes and gone into others as a hospice volunteer.  When my uncle moved to a memory care home, I saw the aides who cared for him as angels: they did for my uncle and the other residents what we family members no longer could.  They did this with magical skill and saintly kindness.  And for wages that were obscenely sub-standard.  I was enormously grateful to them.  But in these years of being in and out of long-term care homes, this is what I’ve also seen: aides who sit talking to each other or texting while residents sleep in front of TVs or sit staring into space, alone.  I’ve seen a resident fall because an aide was busy texting.  Aides spend mealtimes noisily socializing with each other instead of engaging with residents, most of whom (at least in memory units) need some level of assistance.  Some aides announce, by their behavior, “Once she’s bathed and dressed and in the dining room, once he’s fed and toileted: once the ADLs are completed, it’s my time.”  Sometimes instead of interacting with residents, aides simply take time apart to rest.  It’s not that aides are intentionally mean or abusive.  And comradery among aides isn’t a perk; it’s essential.  But on every shift there are failures in attentiveness to residents, failures to engage them in an enriching way, lost opportunities for Creating Moments of Joy, as Jolene Brackey has written. 

Some will object, “Not in OUR facility!  We have awesome aides who go out of their way every day to make life better for residents.”  Yes, aides are often inspirationally caring.  But too frequently the quotidian reality is lackluster care, not the person-centered care promised.  Tellingly, the administrators who dispute this picture are often conspicuous for their absence from the daily fray.

Here’s something else I see: thanks to abysmal wages, many aides work two jobs.  Where I live, starting wages are $9 to $12 an hour.  Self-employed aides can earn more, but have no benefits.  Full-time aides are sometimes scheduled to work only 32 hours a week, to avoid overtime when an aide is asked to work a double shift to cover for someone who calls out at the last minute.  Many aides have children at home to care for.  By the time the aide starts his or her shift, which typically involves caring for six to ten residents, she is already tired in body and spirit.  How can this aide bring to work the physical and emotional energy needed to care for the chronically ill, the elderly frail, the cognitively impaired?  Is this what you want for your parent or spouse, or yourself?

How to improve care?  Administrators provide innovative training programs.  Workshops offer state-of-the-art information and creative care ideas.  Two questions not examined:  1. How do we get aides to buy into culture change and embrace person-centered care, once the trainer leaves?    2. Where do we find the money to increase staffing and pay direct-care workers a living wage, one that honors the physical and emotional demands they meet every day?  

Culture change seems focused primarily on training of direct-care workers and renovations to the physical environment.  A more effective approach might come from a change in what we expect of leadership.  Once upon a time, ‘Management-by-Walking-Around’ was the mantra.  An effective manager was expected to circulate on the factory or office floor, paying attention.  Not spying on employees, not micro-managing, but noticing things.  Sensing conflicts and stresses before these undermine performance.  Offering feedback when needed.  In care homes, how often do you see someone on hand whose role is to encourage, compliment, coach or critique?  To see that necessary supplies are on hand.  To offer an on-the-spot performance suggestion, transforming a moment of poor care into an opportunity to reinforce good care skills, per Teepa Snow’s  coaching model.  And at times, with a chronic slacker, to go down the road of discipline.  How much do managers engage with direct-care workers? 

Today’s code word for good care is engagement: aides need to engage with residents.  If administrators aren’t modeling this by meaningful interactions with direct-care workers, will aides believe that engagement is to be the ethos in their workplace?

We can’t improve what we don’t see.  If administrators don’t see the problems, it might be because they are buried in ‘CYA’ paperwork, medication management, marketing efforts, and time-stealing meetings.  Sometimes their offices are in some distant realm of the facility.  Culture-changing organizations might hire a clerk for paperwork and scheduling, freeing the front-line manager for a more constructive presence among staff.  Give this manager a mandate to convert ‘person-centered care’ from a slogan to a fact.   

Can LTC homes provide person-centered care, without the personnel?  Staffing levels are egregiously low.  They may meet states’ woeful requirements but we all know they are inadequate to ensure patient safety, let alone the person-centered care everyone espouses.   Inadequate staffing also leads to on-the-job injuries and CNA burnout.  Are any of the culture-change conferences addressing these issues?  Are leaders lobbying for better staffing and better wages for their CNAs?

Ah, wages!   One is tempted to wonder whether managers tolerate poor performance out of guilt or shame for what they pay their aides.  Even compassionate professionals don’t want to mention the issue of wages in public.  It may seem too daunting and discouraging a challenge—and an embarrassment.  Compensation levels reflect the fact that the job doesn’t require high-level academic or technical credentials.  But aides shouldn’t be thought of as unskilled.  Our skills lie in meeting the global needs of residents who are sometimes completely dependent on us.  A good aide needs to excel in kindness, patience, gentleness, flexibility, effective time management, communications creativity, appreciation for the diverse ethnic, racial, religious, cultural backgrounds of those in our care.  We care for residents regardless of their illnesses or diseases.  We don’t need to describe here the physical tasks we perform, sometimes difficult, often unpleasant.  When the person has dementia, the challenges are doubled, tripled.  We’re accountable to employers, to families, and to our residents.  Not everyone is up to the job.  Wages should reflect the importance of this work and the competencies it requires.  We need a mindset conversion among executives who still think it’s acceptable to sustain their LTC organizations by reliance on a bare-boned staff of underpaid workers who need public assistance to supplement their wages.  Care homes charge their CNAs to respect the dignity of residents.  What about respect for the dignity of CNAs, starting with a living wage?

“Where will we get the money to raise wages and increase staffing?” ask horrified LTC operators. The question is valid.  However, it begs the further question: How much are you spending now, and for what?  Until there is budget transparency (another piece of culture change), the industry’s position that these proposals aren’t affordable, isn’t credible or convincing.  Their question should be not the end of the discussion, but the beginning.  Reviewing the content of culture-change workshops, we don’t see these issues on agendas.  No one wants to touch staffing or wage issues.  Could it be that the profit motive plays too big a part in the culture of some LTC organizations? 

This isn’t rocket science: Be as zealous about improving supervision, staffing, and wages as you are about upgrading the chandeliers and countertops and holding conferences.  Put your assets where you claim your values are.  (Make your budget transparent!)  Invite CNAs to be co-leaders in culture change.  Then we might see culture change that leads to transformed care, transformed lives.