She was one of the more”challenging” residents. I met her eight years ago, when I first entered the weird wild world of Long Term Care as a housekeeper. Whatever preconceived notions I may have held about nursing homes and assisted living facilities were quickly smashed as I moved from room to room, mop in hand.
I had heard rumors about the lady in room 207. She was the only resident who was allowed a pet, a mean little dog that would snap at strangers and bark CONSTANTLY. I was surprised that this was allowed. The caregivers explained that she had worn the administrator down by sheer force of will. She refused to give up her dog and management refused to give up the money that came from her living there. They turned a blind eye until the dog snipped another resident and then, with very little warning, they kicked her and her little dog out.
Fast forward three years: one whistle blowing experience, two owners and three administrators later, I was back in that same facility, this time as a caregiver with much more knowledge and experience in how the system works…there she was! Back again, with all her feistiness but without her dog.
“I remember you!”, she snapped, almost spitting the words at me.
“I remember you too”. I looked through the ADL notes: Refused shower. Refused shower. Refused shower. Two weeks straight of shower refusals.
I had just started working that particular hall…it was the assignment that no one wanted. At first, I was intimidated. Having worked mainly on the memory care unit, the idea of working with the combination of physical and mental illnesses in this group was daunting. Still, I liked a challenge and seeing a familiar face made it more comfortable. I walked into her room, sat on the edge of her bed and asked her the first question that popped in my head,
“So why do you hate showers?” She looked up in surprise as if the question had never occurred to her. She thought about that for a moment.
“I don’t”, she mumbled. Ok. We’re getting somewhere.
“I just don’t like being told what to do.”…ahhhh. That I understood. So I explained about shower schedules. She could not care less. I cajoled and pleaded and attempted to redirect to no avail. Finally, I settled for bribery. I would buy her a Dr. Pepper. With that, she cheerfully followed me to the bathroom.
She was a force of nature; a fighter who had little use for most people. Over the years, the bond we formed early on over a Dr. Pepper deepened. I knew it was she who pulled the fire alarm during a rain shower, forcing us to evacuate the entire facility when she felt she didn’t get her coffee in a timely manner. I hid my amusement as I firmly explained that this was completely unacceptable, though I never reported her for it. I didn’t have the heart. The time she snuck an entire cup of soap and dumped it in the whirlpool causing a flood of bubbles that spread from the bathroom to the hallway, the times she would “borrow” sodas from her roommate causing veritable riots…she was legendary.
When I left the facility for a job in private care, saying goodbye to her was one of the most painful moments. I told her I loved her, promised to visit and told her to not terrify the new girls. Trust was so hard for her and I knew that she felt abandoned. She told me as much. I made certain to visit as often as I could, but life gets busy. Between my new job, writing, recovery and volunteering, my visits slowed down. There are only so many hours in a day and I kept telling myself I’d visit after New Orleans, after I settle back into work, tomorrow, next week…
I got the call from a friend last week. It was unexpected. She had been sliding downhill slowly but she went into the hospital and died suddenly.
Loss is a part of our job. It isn’t easy but without an acceptance of that fact, it would be impossible for me to continue in this field. My way of coping is to remember each and every one of my folks and the impact that they made on my life. I get attached and that is what works for me. Others set strong boundaries and they are equally effective in this field. There is no one way to cope with the more difficult aspects of our work. I have found it to be an intensely personal and subjective matter. There is no wrong way to find peace in grief. Still, this one hit me hard. I thought we would have more time.
I went to visit the facility shortly afterwards. I had made the decision that any time wasted feeling guilty would be much better spent visiting my former residents. I walked in and greeted everyone and it was like coming home. Residents and staff embraced me and as I walked the halls, I listened. Everyone had a story to share about my friend in room 207. They spoke of her spirit and her fight. Funny, touching stories that spoke to her courage and refusal to simply roll over and play dead. I was filled with a sudden peace and deep gratitude. She may be gone, but it was clear that in this facility her legend will never die.