Life lessons from a nursing home activity aide.
Personal experiences that express the importance of love, life, and faith during a pandemic.
I’d just graduated from a community college.
In the beginning, I was nervous about not finding work due to COVID-19. That summer, ‘heroes wanted’ ads started popping up more and more. Shortly after applying, I participated in a phone-call interview, and a few weeks later, I was hired as a part-time employee.
At first, I was skeptical because I had never worked in a nursing home before. My family urged me not to take the job because they believed it put me at risk of getting sick, but to be honest, I wasn’t afraid of getting sick.
I thought to myself,
“Maybe this is a good thing. Most patients can’t see their families, so why not try it out? Maybe, I can do my part by helping others.”
My first day of training went better than I’d expected. My facility was smaller than most we housed long-term patients and temporary ones. The facility consisted of only two halls that housed all of the patients. As I was going down the halls severing food and water, I immediately noticed the difference in appearance.
The temporary hall was much nicer, there was brand new wallpaper, decor, and flooring. The hall for permanent patients seemed worn down. The wallpaper was torn in certain places, it smelled different, and it seemed pale.
As I went to each room, you could see how the personalization of the rooms made it more alive. Their doors were decorated with colored pictures from their grandchildren and cards from their relatives. I was happy to see all of their family keepsakes. Their rooms told a story of who they were and where they came from.
As I was working in the halls, I met all of the patients one on one. One patient that I remember the most was named Theo, she was 101 years old. Theo was kind, funny, lively, and always wanted to play cards or dice.
Most people don’t talk about how the elderly are more fun to be around. They shared stories about their past and taught me lessons I’ll never forget.
The nursing home had to enforce safety protocol prescribed by the CDC. Patients had to wear masks everywhere except in their rooms. Group gatherings were limited, mail or packages had to wait for 24 hours before being given to the patients. In-person family meetings took place outside with no more than two people and always six feet apart (if the weather was permitting.)
Most of them hated wearing the mask, the majority of them stood in their rooms watching tv, eating snacks, and conversing with their roommates. When staff tested positive for COVID-19 all of the activities took place in their rooms, most of them being one on one. Either watching a movie, talking to them, giving them reading material, painting nails, or playing games.
The first month
Over time I got to see the toll that the pandemic had on both the patients and staff. It was hard to tell the difference between the day and night shift nursing staff. Both looked equally sleep-deprived and exhausted. I got to see how hard both the nurses and CNA’s work around the clock. Trust me, they do a lot more than they should and they deserve to be paid a lot more.
Staff tried their best to keep patients hopeful and entertained but most of their interactions with their families came from a tablet screen, a phone call, a card, or sometimes a letter. What I didn’t know before the pandemic was that in the past, they used to host events every week so that their families could come and spend time with them.
Some families came by to see their loved ones from the outside. They’d find their window and talk to them through the telephone. The first time I saw this I wanted to cry.
Have you ever wanted to hug someone really bad but couldn’t?
It was hard for most of our patients to stay locked in their rooms when they were most at risk for getting the virus. In a nursing home, the only people who could leave this type of situation were the staff. We could go home, take off our masks, and see our loved ones. As it is, patient privileges were limited so if the employees didn’t take the proper precautions outside of work, then that placed the patients at risk for getting COVID-19.
Just before we went on lockdown and placed the patients in isolation, we did family visits three weeks before Thanksgiving. I had supervised the visitations outside, signed in family, and did temperature checks. The family members were so happy to see them. That was the first time I’d met Richard; he was a new patient in the temporary wing. He was wheelchair-bound, with no clear verbal communication skills, and was attended to by CNAs at all times.
That day his son came to do an outdoor visit. His son spent most of the time reflecting on memories, telling Richard about his grandchildren, and the family. I watched Richard closely, his hands always used to shake persistently, but that day his sons’ voice calmed him. Even though his eyes were distracted, he seemed to be comforted by his words.
His son asked me, “Do you think he’s there? Do my words even matter?”
Without hesitating I immediately said yes. I told him to pay close attention to his hands. His son stopped talking to see if he could see what I saw. When Richard’s hands began to move, the son talked more. The son cried out of relief the more he began to realize his father was listening to his voice. I’d told him that even if Richard couldn’t communicate back to him, he was showing him he was listening. Richard was calm, relaxed, and content by that interaction.
That day my words meant more to his son than anything else. The son had been waiting months to talk with his father. He’d spent some time in the hospital before coming to our facility.
Later that afternoon Richard passed away.
Just in time for the holidays
It was around Thanksgiving, staff and employees started getting sick. Around this time, I was compensating for other departments, helping out anywhere I could. During this time when the patients were in isolation, it was hard to do my job. Most days I would go room to room serving water, passing some material to keep their minds focused elsewhere, but the majority of my efforts didn’t work.
Each day I’d clock in to work and take a shortcut through the kitchen to get to my office. On the kitchen whiteboard, there was a list of patients who had passed. Every week it seemed like the list kept getting longer and longer.
When patients were close to the end, their families got to sit with them in their rooms. It’s terrible to think that the first time they got to finally see their loved ones is right when they’re about to pass on. Some of the employees had known some of the patients for years and were close to their families. Losing a patient hurt the same as it did family.
Sue was my favorite patient; she reminds me of my mother. She loved going outside, tending to her tomato garden, watering her plants, and playing bingo. She was loud and always sure of what she was going to say. Sue was confident in everything that she did. She wasn’t afraid to tell you the truth about how she felt. She always spoke her mind, there was never a time where she hid anything about who she was or where she came from.
After the isolation period ended, Sue’s vision slowly began to deteriorate. She grew irritable and frustrated at the reality that staff had to help her with almost everything. Some days she would get so upset she’d yell at the nursing staff. Sue was slowly losing her independence, and this hurt her more than anything.
Some nurses and doctors grew impatient with her because she stubbornly rejected their advice and assistance. No matter how proud or strong Sue was on the outside, on the inside she was crumbling. I tried to sit and converse with her as much as possible. I would take her outside, get her to join in on bingo, or put on a good movie.
One day when we were outside talking, she said, “I know I can be a grump sometimes, but they’ve got to understand that I’m not ready to fade away.”
I reassured her that I could still see her, that it takes time for us to adjust to certain events, and it’s perfectly normal to be afraid of change.
She sharply replied, “You don’t have to tell me about the reality of life! It just hurts, and I’m not the one to cry over things. I’ll be damned if this or COVID gets to me. I know I’ll get through this; I was raised on a farm ya know?”
Sue never failed to make me smile.
Helena was Polish and happened to be a Holocaust survivor. She was the youngest of ten children. Her family owned a grocery store and a farm. Her mother soon died after giving birth to her last child. Helena always spoke of her father. She described him as a hard-working, strong, and independent man.
Helena always spoke about the war; she was taken from her home and was forced to work in a Nazi elitist restaurant. There Helena explained how there the Nazis lived like kings.
She recalled these events as, “the dark sucking away the light.”
After each story, she told me, “Anything good in life, the Nazis took away without hesitation. They were devils walking the Earth.”
She spent five years under the Nazi regime, when it was over, she spent another five years in an immigration camp. The immigration camp is where she met her husband. She described him as a hard-working gentleman. A few years later, they married and had three sons.
Helena was gradually losing her memory; she would have brief periods where she forgot the names of her friends, nursing staff, and family. Although she was just a young girl during the Holocaust, she recollected memories with fine detail. She always told me about her three sons and how proud she was of them. When she came to the United States, she worked two jobs to put her boys through school. She always reminded me of the importance of working hard in life.
She once said, “In life, you’ve got to sacrifice the things you want now for the things you want later.”
I sat in disbelief that I, little ole Jasmine from Pasadena, would someday meet, speak, and become friends with a Holocaust survivor. It’s funny to think that two souls can cross paths without having any common threads. Helena taught me that the bigger picture was always worth the sacrifice. That having goals are important in life; they motivate you and inspire you to keep moving forward.
This thing I remember about this morning was that everyone was talking silently, all about the same person. I couldn’t understand what was going on, I thought another person had passed. Later I discovered that one of the most unlikely patients had threatened to take his own life.
I remember the first time I met Lenny; he was funny and very loud. Lenny always smiled, engaged with the other patients, and participated in activities. He always had chocolate milk with every meal and was addicted to online shopping.
That morning I immediately thought that they got the name mixed up. I went to his room only to discover he wasn’t there; staff had transported him to get a psych evaluation. By the time he returned, he seemed quiet. For the next couple of weeks, he kept to himself, remained quiet, and didn’t engage with activities for a while.
Every time I would pass by his room, he would always be asleep even during the day. I caught him watching tv once, and I gave him some extra personalized gifts I made for him.
He looked at me happily and said, “You thought of me? These are all for me? Thanks.”
I thought to myself, “Maybe that’s it, he needs someone to see him. Do extra things just for him, be cared for, and thought of.”
This made me aware of how much I didn’t know about the patients. Sure, I knew how some of them liked their breakfast, lunch, and dinner; but it didn’t mean I knew their struggles. Every patient had gone through, experienced, and suffered from things I wasn’t aware of.
This job taught me more about life than any other professional experience.
It made me realize how much love, care, and attention people need. We aren’t meant to live in isolation or solidarity; we need to express ourselves, share our stories, and connect with others.
More importantly, people need to look forward to something, they need to have goals and plans. They need to be inspired and motivated to get through the day. When we were finally able to gather everyone in the dining hall, it was like all the patients had won the lottery. Smiles filled the room with the sight of other people. Everyone was grateful just to be surrounded by others again. Bingo game nights were the most popular event, the residents would ask me when the next game night would be with excitement in their eyes.
Above all, people need to be seen, comforted, heard, and genuinely cared for.
I learned that it was the little things I did that mattered most to them. Whether it be giving them extra goodies, playing bingo during the day, or setting aside time to be with them one on one. All of this mattered to them, and my friendships flourished because of this.
To my readers…
Thank you for reading this article. I appreciate you giving this your full undivided attention. What lessons did you take away from this? Do you have an experience similar to mine? Let me know by sharing your experiences, thoughts, and opinions.