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 have to stop. This is getting ridiculous.”, I thought. It was my day off and I accidentally-on-purpose stumbled into the world of online news articles…two hours earlier. It wasn’t the articles that I found so disturbingly riveting. If I had learned anything this election cycle, it was to find and get my information from legitimate and objective sources and to stay away from opinion pieces disguised as fact. No. It wasn’t the articles. It was the comments section. I had jumped down a rabbit hole into a world in which I had no business being.
The level of hostility driven by fear took my breath away. Comment after comment of anger and name calling; fully grown adults incapable of completing a thought without using expletives, their words screaming off of my computer screen. It did not matter what side of the pointless argument they took. This was equal opportunity rage and poor behavior and it fed off itself; a snowball effect of dark emotion fueled by the safety of anonymity. It was as if no one recognized that they were talking to other human beings and it is bleeding into the world beyond the World Wide Web.
That’s when it hit me. We caregivers have a unique opportunity in this climate. I know this sounds like a stretch, but follow me here for a minute. In my capacity as a caregiver, I have had clients and residents from just about every walk of life: Rich, poor, black, white, middle eastern, Mexican, gay, straight, super religious and die hard atheists; people living with a variety of physical and mental disorders and people from all sides of the political spectrum. None of that mattered. The very nature of our work depends on seeing people beneath their disorder and knowing who they are in order to provide the best quality of care. Personal disagreements on politics or religion in no way factored in and because of this I have learned from those with whom I wouldn’t ordinarily have had the opportunity to engage and have been blessed with many close friendships that often arise from the caregiver/ client relationship. I have never, not one single time viewed a client as simply one thing. I didn’t think of them as their disorder, race, religion, politics or whether or not they were private pay. I know them by their stories, by what they share with me and their personalities. We, as caregivers, do this naturally. It becomes second nature. We remind those in our care that they are human beings, first and foremost, and deserve to be treated with dignity. Imagine if we collectively used those lessons we learned from our work on every person we meet. Imagine if we could teach those lessons to others by our actions. Wouldn’t THAT be a movement worth starting!
As a society, we have to stop allowing the worst of our anger and fear to dictate our behavior. We can not allow ourselves to pigeonhole others to the point of only seeing our differences. We have to do better than this. I think those of us in the caregiving field have a responsibility now to apply our expertise to the world at large. We have a deeper calling. Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day so I would like to end this plea with the man who said it so much better than I ever could and who backed his words with his actions:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” ”I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”