Endless Rewards

If you read my last post, about my first day working as a care-giver at a dementia care facility, you might have gotten the mistaken impression that it’s depressing. It is physically demanding and intellectually challenging, but there are so many upsides to it.  The experience is giving me a new attitude about the achievements we take for granted in our everyday lives.  When you have to work hard to help someone get dressed, washed and fed, each time it’s done right feels as good as an Olympic medal.  I can’t use names, so I’m going to call people by their conditional characteristics in this article.

So far I’ve only worked first shift, which is from 6AM to 2PM.  The second shift has been slacking off a bit on Tall guy with Bad Arm (TBA).  He’s asleep most of the time, and his disease process is advanced.  His bones are brittle, and one arm got fractured just moving him up in bed.  It has healed, but it’s still sore, so he will go OH! If you move it the wrong way as you position him.  Residents are to be showered twice a week if at all possible.  Sponge-baths in bed aren’t really adequate unless they can’t be moved.  TBA hadn’t been showered or shaved in a week, and he was pretty stinky.  It took three of us to get him into a shower chair without hurting him.  He said OH! A lot, but with the warm water flowing over him, we could all see him relax.  We spoke to him using his name constantly, as we do with all of them.  He opened his eyes and gave us a little nod!  It felt like the king had granted us all titles.

Sense of Humor Guy can only speak a few words, but he can do most of his own dressing (with assistance) and feeding, and he makes terrific jokes.  He doesn’t observe proper ownership boundaries all the time, but you get the sense it’s all in fun to him.  He “borrowed” a sweater from another resident’s room and has been wearing it.  When we call it to his attention, he looks up in the air as if to say “Who, me?”  The first time he met me, he stared at my shaved head intently, looked at his regular care-giver, pointed at my head, and then made little flapping motions with his arms. Get it? BALD EAGLE.

Nearly all residents who are awake and even semi-alert respond favorably to smiling.  They smile back, and their smiles are completely open and without judgment, the way children smile for the simple pleasure of doing it.  These people do recognize our intent, and for the most part they recognize our faces too and will smile upon seeing our approach.  They aren’t so good with names but eh, neither am I.

Some of the women have retained their taste in what kind of men they prefer.  Puff-ball is one of these types.  She talks to me like a son.  I’m slightly smaller than average.  If she sees the chef, who has notable girth and is over six feet tall, she will say things like “Look at THAT guy.” She may smile seductively.  She knows what she likes.

Feeding takes time.  Believe it or not, it’s the biggest challenge.  Therefore when a good result is achieved, we feel good about it.  Nearly all of the residents have definite taste preferences.  The experienced care-givers are teaching those to me.  TBA doesn’t like yogurt.  You can ask him.  If you offer yogurt, he will give a little nod – uh-uh.  On the other hand, ask him if he wants some WINE.  He might give you a big smile.  Then you can put the straw from the grape juice in his mouth.  Whatever works.  Our residents have standing “Do Not Resuscitate” orders, but as long as we can get any kind of response, even a subtle one, we’ll do whatever it takes to get them to accept hydration and nutrients.  We honor their efforts to live by assisting them.

Everyone responds well to being embraced and touched with sincerity and gentleness.  One loves “babies” and likes having dolls and stuffed animals around.  I’m doing well with those ladies who like having a young man to escort them to the dining room or to activities.  Yesterday we had a sing-along.  Imagine people who never speak, but can (and do) loudly singing “In the Good Old Summertime”.  There’s always a way in.  We just have to figure it out.  I’m so lucky.  So lucky.  I get to love people for a living.

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18 Comments

Filed under Communications, Emotions, Ethics and Morality, humor, Self-Esteem

18 responses to “Endless Rewards

  1. Aw Mikey, you are well suited to this profession… wonderful post. When I was in High School I volunteered in a Care Home, helping an occupational therapist to see if I wanted to go into the profession.
    It was a very enlightening experience. In the end other factors out of my control meant that I never went further with occupational therapy as a vocation but I was deeply moved and probably partly shaped by what I heard and felt and saw there. It was a special time that I enjoyed a lot but many of the stories behind the residents were very sad indeed. Society often has a lot to answer for, especially in it’s treatment of the old. It’s wonderful to see that people who care ARE taking care of some of societies most vulnerable people. You reminded me of many things that a busy life had shoved away into recesses. Thank you for some beautiful memories of some beautiful people.

    • Certainly THIS culture has a lot to answer for. I’m told the old are actually revered and cared for with deference in some countries. I wish what I’m doing wasn’t so badly needed or so poorly paid.

      I did some volunteering in a home for mentally-challenged kids long ago. I know what you mean about other factors intruding. Still, I’m strong enough and more knowledgeable now. I’m more qualified for the job.

  2. Michael your compassion is unbelievable. It’s rare. It’s a gift. This post resonates deeply within me. Each and every day, I am grateful for my mind. I thank God for Earth Angels like you. Thank you!

    • The only thing rare about my compassion is getting a small paycheck for proving it, and a great deal of deeply satisfying interpersonal compensations.

      I think this level of caring is in everyone, innately. The dehumanizing effect of working at jobs that are not essential, merely profitable, in order to acquire material possessions, is enormous. So many choose to sell their time doing things they dislike or can’t value. I spent half my working life that way.

      You understand. You’re a teacher. You’re still teaching, and you’ve found new ways to do it with your writing and speaking career. You know how much we are taught by others we teach. It works the same in what I’m doing. They are feeding me as much or more than I’m feeding them.

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  4. “It felt like the king had granted us all titles.” Love that line. It expresses a view of the aged that most don’t have.

    This kills me, the whole idea of our aged community members being whisked out of sight. I used to think it was the young who did this to the old, but I’ve learned that our society at all levels has agreed to this arrangement. My own parents sold their home in a real honest to gosh neighborhood — the one I grew up in — and intentionally moved out to a 55+ community, where young people are not permitted to dwell. I don’t understand. And my mother says that she doesn’t want to be “a burden” when she gets older, which means we have permission to “stick her in a home”. While I respect her wish, I disagree with the worldview completely. I’m for the Walton’s Mountain model, wherein (ideally, maybe not practically) a person grows up knowing and interacting with the older people in their community; the children then come to understand and accept aging and death, and learn to value experience and wisdom; then, after their own productive adult years are over, they arc into that revered place themselves, contributing as long as they are able and then finally becoming children again, completing the cycle. No one believes a child is a burden (or rather, we may feel it sometimes but no sane person believes a child is undeserving of the care they require). And the worst part is, we have arranged our lives so that it is not an easy thing to go against this culture. Even if I wanted to override my parents’ wishes, I could not readily afford to do so. The system in a sense protects itself from counterculture. The treadmill doesn’t really roll backward. Mikey, thanks for this post. I’m so glad it’s YOU doing this work. It makes me hopeful that there are others in this industry who feel as you do.

    • Everyone I’ve worked with at THIS facility feels as I do about the importance of the work, and they are much better at it than I am (being so new). I’m going to enjoy figuring out innovations with this staff. Something can always be done better, or more effectively. It’s just a big complicated problem.

      I’m glad you have the Walton’s mountain attitude, Matt. My mother lives in a senior community, but she’s thinking of moving out. The landlord doesn’t fix things like buzzy lights or drippy faucets, because she assumes the older tenants will just accept it, or die, which a number of them have done.

  5. Deborah

    Hi Mikey — I’ve finally had time to read and re-read these two posts and am very glad I did; I hope you write some more about your experiences of doing this work. x

    • I will, Deborah, once I figure out how to properly preserve the anonymity of the patients, since it concerns confidential information heavily regulated by law. I’m nervous about revealing too much by mistake. The fines are huge.

  6. Compassion and caring for people doesn’t pay a lot of money, but the rewards in wisdom and joy they bring no money can buy.

    • I agree with you, though I think it should pay better because many care-givers become injured or suffer serious stress-related difficulties in this line of work. There are concrete risks undertaken to body and spirit. Soldiers get combat pay. We should too. Fair’s fair.

  7. I am truly impressed; I know I could not do your job. My mother-in-law is now in an assistant living/rehabilitation facility and I really wish that the workers had your care, concern and love.

    My hats off to you, it takes a very special person to be able to do the things you do and still show compassion.

    • I thank you for your appreciation, GraceKay. The people who do this work are actually just ordinary folks, primarily women. I believe when directly faced with dire need, almost anyone will step up to the task and try to help. It’s just that these patients are marginalized and kept away from society as if their condition was shameful. The more that people survive to advanced age, the more likely dementia becomes. If you live to 90, your chances are 1 in 10.

  8. lianamerlo

    Bathing twice a week doesn’t seem like very much. I remember as a child, my great grandmother used to say she didn’t want to be sent to a home because they don’t bathe them there and leave them to rot in their filth (she lived into her 90s and lived with family to the end). But it sounds like you treat them very well, the way they deserve to be treated. I’d rather live there than with family.

    The bald eagle joke reminded me, you changed your theme! I like it. But you’re not how I imagined you to look (not an insult, just a statement). I would have guessed you had brown eyes for some reason.

    • Many of our residents are fearful at first. It’s normal. Nobody rots. We do heroic things every day to help them have as fulfilling a life as they can. EVERYONE deserves that!

      My darling wife has the brown eyes. I adore brown eyes.

  9. Pingback: I worked in a specialized dementia care facility for nine months « kissesforelizabeth

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