Just Down the Road

4 min
This summer, after a considerable time spent thinking it over, I started a new job at the absolute worst time someone could ever start working at the kind of place that I ended up. I decided to be a server.

In a nursing home.

During a pandemic.

There are a few reasons why I decided to do this: mainly, no other place was hiring. The facility is also very close to home (within walking distance, even), pays extra “COVID” money, and I was familiar with some of the staff because my grandmother used to live there.

I have learned more about people in the past two months than I have at any point in my life. I’ve seen things that I think everyone should see, and also things I hope no one ever will. I’ve experienced firsthand the simple fact that crises change people. It’s been ugly and uplifting and confusing.

When I first arrived, I thought I was somewhat prepared for what I’d see working in a nursing home, but the four-hour online training and COVID module I underwent laid down some rules that threw me for a loop:

I must call the residents only by their first names, never nicknames such as “honey” or “sweetie”.
No matter what a resident's political beliefs are, they are entitled to their opinion and the associates (employees) are not allowed to be offended by them. I had a harder time following this one, as I came to learn.
You will see some gross things, so be prepared and handle every situation professionally.
Dinner is at 4:30 every day, delivered individually to the residents’ apartments. No dining room.

The last one turned out to be a particular annoyance to me and my coworkers. Half of the residents complain that dinner served is too early and the other half grumble that it’s too late. At this, all I can do is apologize and ask if they need anything else. Or rather, scream. My voice is so muffled under my mask and face shield, and some of the residents are so half-deaf to begin with, that I sometimes repeat myself half a dozen times before leaving the room.

It is frustrating for both parties.

Speaking of time, this is something the residents seem to have lost track of during quarantine. It makes sense when you think about it; hours turn into days turn into weeks turn into months. Everything melts together, much like the ice-cream soup we keep sliding down their throats. It is a little funny in a morbid way, though, when I walk into someone’s room at five in the afternoon and they reply, “Breakfast already?”

When I step into the residents’ rooms, I get somewhat of an involuntary look into their personal lives that feels simultaneously like a violation and a chance to get to know them on a deeper level. I’m grateful to have discovered the diverse and interesting backgrounds these residents have, and the stories that they have to tell. One man has six children, 15 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. One woman is 104 years old and is still more active and sharp than some of the youngest residents. One woman was a world-class artist and filled her room with many of her most beautiful paintings. One has AIDS and used to be a civil rights activist. Several are veterans.

More interesting than stories, though, are the personality quirks I see come to life each day. One woman, a British seamstress from the English countryside, told me she always takes her tea with milk and lemon, because that is how the Queen drinks it and she won’t have it any other way. Her roommate, the only black resident and a woman from the Deep South, just smiled and rolled her eyes. Another man, the one with all the grandchildren, was walking in the hallway one day and I asked him what he was doing out and about. He said he was just getting some exercise and that he was trying to stay out of trouble, and when I said that I didn’t think that would be a problem, he replied that I must not know him too well.

As nice as some moments are, however, working where I do in times like these is, inevitably, extremely depressing. The residents are not allowed to leave the building except for medical reasons, and cannot have any visitors. Essential personnel only means long days filled with loneliness and sorrow for many of these elders. One woman, Clara, laments to me every time I come into her room how lonely she is. Once as I was leaving, I heard her tell her next door neighbor, Roger, that he was her closest friend. Roger is completely stoic and hardly ever says a word to anyone. She told him that she just couldn’t bear her loneliness anymore. As I closed the door I couldn’t help but feel for her. Nobody deserves that.

While there is a separate ward for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, the residents are not immune from occasional bouts of confusion, especially when they’ve been in isolation. While I have yet to be attacked by one of them, I can say that I have been mistaken for an intruder, shot at with an imaginary rifle, been cursed at, and been called “honey” and “baby” and other, less flattering names. One of them asked me what I was doing walking into their room wearing “something like that”. I was wearing the same blue polo shirt and black work pants uniform I wear every single day. Two of them currently think my name is Martha, and at this point I don’t even bother to correct them. Sometimes you just have to go with it.

Some other things I learned on the job that they didn’t teach me in online training are a bit more interesting:

Your coworkers will hail from places as far as Japan, Ghana, El Salvador, Laos, Ethiopia, Nigeria, or live as close as directly down the street just like me. You will get along with everyone but also understand that there are profound differences between you based on where you came from and why you are doing this job.
The nurses all eat their native cuisine together and will act like a clique, at times excluding everyone else in the room. One time my poor coworker, a blonde sorority girl named Emily, asked them what they were eating. They only replied that she wouldn’t like it and that it was too spicy for her. Then they asked her what she cooked at home. I could barely stifle a laugh as she looked at the ground and mumbled meekly, “...pasta”.
The chef only speaks Spanish, so brush up on your food terminology. Pollo con elote y papas por favor. Listo?
You and your coworkers will talk smack about which residents were being difficult and who said what about who, but then feel bad about it afterwards.
Sometimes a resident will either be on the toilet or not wearing pants. If you see someone not wearing pants, you are to pretend like you do not notice that they are not wearing pants.

All of my experience at the nursing home has made me want to do even more for these people. As glamorous as it is moving trays and scooping ice cream, I would much rather help the residents in a more direct and personal way. I am currently in training to become a Certified Nursing Assistant, so I can provide healthcare to the residents and spend more time with each one of them. Therefore I will graduate from the kitchen to the nurse's lounge, stacking trays to taking vitals, and doing dishes to doing diapers. Yes, it will be hard, and the work is certainly not for everyone. But I couldn’t be more excited to begin.

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