It will get better. I promise… I must have said that a hundred times to our new resident. She didn’t sleep at all. She searched for her mother, father, friend, a child and a pair of shoes that she must have left in England. She paced the floor for hours on ends. She changed her clothes eight times. She knocked on the doors of my other residents and asked me a garbled series of questions to which I had no good answers. In short, she did absolutely everything BUT sleep.
It was an unusually hectic night and by the end of the shift, I was emotionally tapped out. My new resident was so scared, hurt and anxious and eight straight hours of trying to soothe her in between my other tasks left its mark on me. In the end, I walked with her as she paced, rubbed her back when she cried, and made promises that I can’t possibly keep when she frantically asked questions based on the reality within her mind.
It will get better. I promise. I say it all the time. I redirect and calm and search for pets or loved ones that exist only in my residents’ memories. And yes, more often than not using those skills in those moments will bring a measure of short lived relief. But that doesn’t mean it will get better for them. Not in any lasting or impactful way. I can’t stop the loss of her memories. I can’t take away her confusion and unfamiliarity at her new surroundings nor the sense of abandonment and anxiety that comes from being pulled from one reality and placed into different one. I. Am. Powerless.
Normally I am good at compartmentalizing this awareness. It does no good to let those thoughts dance around in my mind. Such thinking only robs me of space in my head that is better used for what I actually can do to make life better for those in my care…normally. There are moments though when I am struck by a wave of such sadness that it robs me of my breath and I feel crushed; paralyzed by the weight of it all. Usually they hit me when I’m feeling powerless in my life outside of work or have been dabbling too long in my mind for my writing. My mind can be a fun place to be, but there are roads in there better left untraveled. The fact is, both on and off the clock, I deal with some pretty heavy shit. It’s kind of what I do. And acceptance of that, even joy in it, is so hardwired into me that I forget sometimes that it takes a toll if I’m not careful. Those short lived crashing waves of momentary despair are my wake up call. HEY ALICE! You’ve been playing too long in the deep end again! Come up for air!
So how do I stick with it and keep the faith without losing the ability to feel? Without becoming hardened? I get out of the problem as quick as I can and get back in the solution. Can I cure Alzheimer’s? No. Can I make someone living with Alzheimer’s laugh hard? More often than not. Can I force someone to get sober? No. Can I offer numbers and resources to someone who is in desperate need of help? Yes. I can do that. There are many aspects of life over which I have no power at all. Some but not all. I can DO. I can consistently and relentlessly keep moving forward. I can brighten another person’s day. I can do my job to the best of my ability. I can be kind and I can never give up. Even when it sometimes feels like the world is begging for it. That I have power over. That is my choice. Powerless and helpless are not the same thing.
This blog started with the idea that the voice and experience of caregivers has been a vital missing ingredient to the improvement of Long Term Care. A conversation about reform that doesn’t include our voice is like bread being baked without yeast.
When Bob found me on a CNA support site I had been searching for answers. For quite awhile, I had felt lost. I was appalled at how those in our care were being treated by the system as a whole. I was beyond frustrated that nothing my fellow co-workers and I said seemed to matter to those in charge. I was saddened by the fact that this was accepted as a matter of course and I was unwilling to believe that nothing could be done about any of it. By providence, fate, or incredibly good timing, I was ready to jump in when Bob explained his idea for this blog and asked me to be a part of it.
Over the last few years you have walked with us as we expressed the frustration, beauty, humor, love and loss that comes as part of the package in this field. Many of you have shared your experiences with us in the comments or emails. I had no idea how far reaching this blog would be or how much I personally would be affected by writing for it. I did not realize at the time that by simply writing a post a week not only would I be an active part of the solution and have the ability to reach others, but I would be opening a door to allow all of you to reach me.
You…yes YOU, reading this, give me hope. You aren’t sleep walking through life telling yourself that one person can’t make a difference so why bother trying. Instead you are reading a blog that’s very existence proves otherwise. It is an incredibly inspiring and deeply moving experience to be a part of CNA edge. In the process I have learned that I am not alone, that we can and are making a difference and that we all have a responsibility to keep speaking our truths, even when we feel it falls on deaf ears.
If you are reading this, you have impacted my life. You inspire me. Writing these pieces force me to look beneath the surface to the deeper essential realities in this field, to dig deep, be honest about my emotions and fears and face them head on. I can never give up because of you. You force me to be brave because how can I ask you to be willing to take a stand and consistently work for change on every level of this field if I am not doing so myself? How can I expect you to believe that you can make a difference if I don’t believe it myself? What experience is more rewarding than to inspire and be inspired? So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
“I KNEW you’d be back with your stupid smile on your stupid face!”
I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from laughing as I quietly slipped into her room to assist her to the restroom.
“Well, Alice, at least this time you were prepared.”, I thought to myself, trying hard to keep my face neutral as my resident hurled a steam of inventive and diverse insults in my direction. Thankfully, she was able to walk and talk at the same time. Physically, she did fairly well on her own but she was just unsteady enough on her feet that I didn’t feel comfortable leaving her to her own devices.
I had been warned. From name calling to throwing soiled briefs, this resident was a challenge. Maybe it’s because I had been in private care for awhile or maybe it’s because I had worked so many years at my last facility that I had a deep and loving relationship with all of those in my care, but I thought there was no way she could be that tough a case or that maybe there was a touch of dementia or mental illness involved…WRONG…SO wrong. Her mind was fine. Sharp as a tack, actually, if her comedic timing and penchant for hitting hard with the verbal blows were any indication.
“You DISGUST me. Every one of you! Women are nothing but TRAMPS nowadays”, she kept ranting through the partially closed bathroom door. I stood just outside waiting for her to finish up, still trying my damnedest to keep from laughing and maintain some semblance of professionalism in facing the wrath of…well of the meanest woman I had ever met, quite honestly.
“STILL smiling?!”, she grumbled as she shuffled toward her bed, “you ought to run away with the circus!”, she hissed. She literally HISSED at me.
“Well, I wanted to when I was a kid! But I realized that I was way too clumsy to be an acrobat and I don’t like clowns. It’s not that I’m afraid of them. I just don’t think they’re funny”…while that was all true, I was surprised to hear the words fly out of my mouth. Apparently so was she because her mouth dropped open in utter surprise. I took the opportunity to quickly cover her up with the blanket and make my escape.
The rest of the shift flew by and I felt utter relief as I pulled into the driveway in the early morning light. I went in the house, tossed the keys on the counter, made my way up the stairs and collapsed onto the bed. My boyfriend woke up and asked how my shift was. I groaned and went into great detail on how difficult and mean this one resident was. He listened to me rant for a minute and then pulled me close to him.
“You’ll find a way to reach her. You always do”. He kissed me softly on the forehead and I smiled to myself. The one thing I had forgotten, at least momentarily, was one of the biggest reasons that I am in this field: To reach people so they know they are valued and not alone. No one is born that mean. And with his reminder and his kindness, I knew that I would try again with her tomorrow. And the next day. And the next…