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.