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.
As a caregiver, I cut my teeth on first shift memory care. For years that was my world. Fast paced, short staffed and unpredictable, first shift was nonstop action. I remember thinking it was ridiculous that there was a pay differential for third shift. After all, there work load was so much lighter than ours. It just didn’t seem fair. I thought along the same lines about private care. One client? How hard could it be? Why were they paid so much more than those of us in facilities? Their job was a cake walk in comparison. Of course, at the time I had no experience with private care or third shift but it seemed like common sense to me. I was wrong.
Contempt prior to investigation. My thinking at the time can best be described by that simple concept. And we are all guilty of that from time to time; Viewing people, events, and moments solely through the lens of our individual perception without the benefit of direct knowledge. If the past few years have taught me anything, it is that the remedy for such thinking is actual experience.
Private care was not easy street. In many ways, it was much more challenging for me than working in a facility. Sure, I occasionally lamented the pace and amount of work we had to accomplish on first shift in my facility, but truth be told, that is when I’m at my best. It was harder for me to pull back and refocus my energy than I expected. The hours were long and it was difficult for me to set work boundaries without the guidance of an agency. It could be very lonely and at times I felt very isolated. The flow of the shift was entirely based on other people’s moods and level of pain. There were also amazing aspects of private care. I loved the family. All of them. I loved the freedom of working independently and having the time to really get to know my client. I loved being involved in bringing holidays back into the house and making her laugh. I loved the deeper connections I was able to forge because my focus wasn’t split eight ways to Sunday. That also made it very hard to leave when a new opportunity arose. My two year journey into private care has enriched my experience in this field and added skills, abilities and insight into my work that I would not have gained had I not taken that path for a little while.
Though I’ve only just begun my jaunt into third shift, I’ve already made some realizations. I understand why they offer a shift differential now. It’s true that the work load is much lighter but that is all I was right about. When I worked first shift, I ran hard. I bled for the job, but when I clocked out for the day I was able to leave work at work. For the most part, anyway. Not so on third. So much of my time in the day is spent trying to effectively work sleep into my schedule so I can be awake and alert through my shift that even when I’m not at work, I’m thinking about work. Or thinking about sleep. And everything else has to be worked in between those two things. The extra money isn’t about what happens on the clock. It’s about the willingness to rearrange life off the clock in order to work when the worlds asleep. It’s about the toll that takes on your mind and body. Sad to say, I would not have connected the dots on that had I never taken this position.
So I am very glad my experience in this field has evolved and hope it will continue to do so. These experiences will remind me not to engage in the “shift wars”. We do not need to tear each other down, ESPECIALLY without having the first clue as to what it’s like from first hand experience. I consider it a lesson well learned.