I’ve been “certified” twice during my time as a laborer in the working world.
In high school, I slopped cyber meat upon a cadaverous computer sandwich well enough to become a certified sandwich artist at Subway.
The sandwich gods bestowed upon me a quarter-cent raise, pushing me a full 25 cents above minimum wage.
In college, I emptied fake catheters and pushed up compression socks during a 75-hour training program to become a certified nursing assistant. One sweaty test later and North Dakota recognizes me as a certified nurse assistant.
If you thought this summer was hot, imagine enduring it in a nursing home, where the residents are in a constant need for a hot blanket.
Sweat fell with the tears.
Upchuck was stifled back.
I’ve never had such a grand time at work.
The lessons I learned as a summer CNA are truly immeasurable. So, in fun, futile fashion, here are nine nuggets I learned from our senior citizens.
- Golden, olden names need to make a comeback.
Because of HIPAA, I won’t use residents’ real names in this article, which is a pity, for they are etymological bliss. Nonetheless, I will use a database for my anecdotes’ subjects, using the most popular names of the 1910s and ‘20s.
A warning to my future wife: I will ardently fight for these names for our eight unborn children.
- Laugh or you will cry.
I dare you to find a more trying job than the humble CNA.
The job is eight hours, or more when mandated, of helping residents live their lives in a way they wish they could.
Not only do we wipe butt, as all my friends remind me when I talk about my job, but we also wipe tears, snot, drool and countertops – repeatedly.
The best defense to the madness, I learned early on, is finding the hilarity in it all, manically smiling and laughing at all of the frustrations of the day.
- Poop is omnipresent.
One day after work, I was disrobing from my scrubs when I found peanut butter on my name tag.
I took a whiff and gagged.
I had put my nose an inch away from feces.
My ID hangs from my scrub top, and while I was changing someone’s diaper, it must have found its way into the crossfire.
I am eternally grateful I didn’t lick.
- Dementia demands creativity.
A resident on the memory care unit grabbed my butt as I walked past her. Florence then demanded that I turn around because, she said, “Imma get your front.”
“Sorry, I can’t because I forgot my cup,” I told her, referring to protective gear.
Mildred, another resident sitting next to us, slid her cup of milk over to help forgetful me.
On another day, a particularly difficult resident named Doreen said she spoke German, to which I responded, “Ja!”
I had been killing free time by learning Deutsch on Duolingo, and this was my moment to shine.
“Doreen, Ich bin ein Mann!” I struggled to say, which translates to “Doreen, I am a man!”
My German was, and is, limited at best.
She lit up. A friendship was made, and her behaviors diminished, at least until she forgot that I could speak German. Then I would butcher another phrase, and a friendship was remade.
- Gravity is a bitch.
Falling isn’t funny at the nursing home. Anywhere else at the expense of young whippersnappers and it’s hilarious. But when hips are endangered, the humor ceases.
Gravity also causes drooping, which is funny if you are watching me try to fight a bra onto a woman.
I can barely handle a bra in itself. Throw in gravity, and struggles ensue.
As one resident named Doris aptly put it, “My boobs look like big, sad balls!”
Which brings up gravity’s last laugh: the downward force doesn’t discriminate, guys.
I once asked a resident named Herbert how his day was.
“It would be better if my nuts didn’t touch the toilet water,” he responded in a tone that sounded like it knew all too well.
- To live longer, be tough.
A resident named Hattie turned 100-something this summer, which shocked me.
This woman is nearly physically independent and is mentally sharp.
I sagely asked, “What’s the secret to not dying?”
Hattie laughed, “Well, I’m a tough cookie.”
I can attest to this: Once, I found her full of feces (it’s omnipresent) and blood in her bathroom. She hadn’t pulled her pants down far enough before the diarrhea unleashed, and, amid the chaos, her nose decided to start gushing.
She was out playing bingo less than an hour later.
- Death doesn’t stop life.
The logical side of my brain tried to warn me about the residents with which I worked.
“Don’t get too close,” it warned. “It’ll only hurt worse when they die.”
So I kept my distance. That lasted a whole minute, maybe.
In caring, we find our humanity.
I helped with the final preparations for a resident who’d passed away after months of suffering. Caring has its baggage – the back-breaking work, the inevitable end, the encompassing grief – but to be able to relieve that baggage’s burden is one of the most gratifying experiences that I’ve found.
- The soul is ageless.
The biggest takeaway I am bringing with me from my summer is that the elderly are just like me, albeit older.
Go ahead and take a minute to process how deep and profound that last sentence is.
The soul does not age. Our bodies will sag; our brains will slow, but the soul stays true to you. The residents I met this summer became grandfathers and grandmothers – or, in Doreen’s case, a “Großmutter” – that I will cherish forever.
“I’m not going to forget you,” Victoria, a woman with severe memory loss, told me on my last day.
While her mind might, I know her soul won’t.
- Hug a nurse.
Squeeze our backs back into alignment with your love. Watch out for our dirty name tags.