While being a Certified Nursing Assistant isn’t the most appealing college summer job, I found myself giving showers, changing diapers, and feeding meals to the elderly on the daily. Don’t let that job description fool you though; this summer has been the most rewarding experience I could have ever asked for.
I typically work overnight, so what comes with that is having one-on-ones. The patients assigned one-on-ones are typically confused and attempt to get out of bed during the night. So, your job is to complete your other assignments, then spend your time observing your one-on-one just to ensure that they are safe throughout the night. Even though I’m not supposed to have favorites, I found myself gravitating towards certain people. One of my favorites happens to be my one-on-one Beth*. Beth is 92, and suffers from dementia, so her memory isn’t the best. Half the time she thinks I’m Judy, and is constantly asking me to grab her iron (irons aren’t allowed in the facility). I’m not sure who Judy is, but while she may not remember my name all the time, she remembers my face. One night she couldn’t sleep, so she stayed up until five o’clock in the morning talking with me. She told me about growing up in a nearby town and how she’s the youngest of three. The most remarkable thing was that while she couldn’t remember what she ate for dinner, she knew every detail about her house growing up. She knew the name of the deli down the street and the names of her closest childhood friends. As I sat and listened she quickly turned to me and asked for the iron. Within a second, she had switched from reality to Beth’s reality. She said she couldn’t go to sleep until she pressed at least two of the linens. Her bedsheets were whatever she imagined them to be. That night they were curtains she was hanging in her living room. The night before, it was a rope she was using to lasso a horse. While she often switched back and forth, in and out of reality, I just sat and listened and encouraged her thoughts. I told her one night I would be leaving soon to go back to school, and that I’ll be away for a couple of months. I figured she didn’t understand what I was saying at the time and just continued working. Even though you understand that your patients typically can’t recall conversations, you still try to keep them socially active.
As I approached my last night of work for the summer, I was thrilled to have just eight hours left. That night happened to be the most hectic night we’ve had in a while. As I ventured in to Beth’s room to say a quick goodbye, one she probably wouldn’t remember, I was in the middle of changing her diaper when she looked up at me and asked me if I was ready for school. I was a little puzzled, but continued to change her and answered her question. She then told me how she thought of me as her saint and how she couldn’t thank me enough for keeping her safe during the night. She held my hand and blew me a kiss on my way out and I couldn’t get over the fact that she had remembered. I assumed she was unaware I was there each night with her and that she couldn’t remember the conversations we had. Even though she had remembered such a small thing, I was so proud of her. Leaving work that morning I couldn’t express how I was feeling. I was glad to be done working six nights in a row, but at the same time, I was upset to be leaving the people I had been caring for. It occurred to me that when I come back in a couple of months some of my patients may no longer be there. While this made me upset, I was happy I was able to develop relationships with the people I cared for. I enjoy developing these relationships and putting positivity into a place that is naturally so sad.
I learned that as young able-bodied individuals, we take for granted being able to perform simple tasks like brushing one’s teeth. At work half of the patients can’t physically brush their own teeth and the other half can’t remember to. While it may seem small and unimportant these actions are what we consider in the nursing home activities of daily living (ADLs). Being able to help individuals with their ADLs allows them to live as people do outside of the nursing home. It allows them to remain humans in a place where its often difficult to feel human. As tired and sweaty I am after a shift, I leave aware of my small impact made on my patients. Knowing that I’ve done so makes me eager to come back for my next shift.
*Names have been changed to protect their identity.