Hello Nicole - July 2001

Dear Nicole,

I work in a nursing home and I wonder sometimes how residents who can’t communicate feel when I’m washing or dressing them. Sometimes I know they don’t like it at all but it’s a dilemma because I’m in such a hurry because there are so few of us… not a good excuse I know but that’s
how it goes all too often. And I’m one of the gentle ones… How depressing.

I read your article on pity versus compassion (May 2001 issue of Access Press) and I can only imagine how aggravating it is being condescended to. I would hate to have to rely on someone else for my basic bodily needs. Can you explain how it feels to have various personal cares done for you, like being turned or repositioned? I want to treat residents with compassion, but I admit I feel sorry for them.

Sincerely,

CNA
Dear CNA,

It is an act of compassion even to wonder what you can do to help the residents you work with be more comfortable. Of course, you feel sorry that they have to spend their lives in a nursing home no one would want to live under these conditions. Compassion doesn’t mean that we don’t feel empathy. Compassion means that instead of running away thinking, “I don’t want to deal with this!” (expressing our avoidance/apathy) or “Thank God it’s not me!” (expressing our superiority/condescension) we ask ourselves, “What can I do to help?”(expressing our
care/respect).  And then we do it.

I hope you can realize how important your thoughtfulness is to the people you work with. Even your intention of wanting to help residents be more comfortable is so rare in these types of institutions. It’s natural that, as a compassionate person, you would feel discouraged that you
aren’t able to measure up to the standards of care you wish you could give. Try to be compassionate and forgiving toward yourself. All you can do is your best, knowing the care you give won’t be perfect because you are working within the confines of the terribly uncaring “care”
system our society has set up for it’s devalued populations. With the lack of funding, staffing and subhuman living environment our society chooses to allow for most nursing homes, there is only so much you can do to help. This is not to say that you can’t do anything, or that you shouldn’t be asking yourself if there is any way you could bring even a slight improvement into someone’s life. We should all be asking ourselves this constantly, every day, no matter what type of work we do.

Being a caregiver is an opportunity to see compassion in very tangible terms. When you are helping a client take a shower, get dressed, transfer or reposition, in essence you are becoming the parts of that person’s body that don’t work independently you are giving yourself over to and becoming that other person. For the moments that you are helping someone you are vital to their lives. The more you can be in touch with the real importance of your job and truly give all your attention to the client you are working with, even if you have to hurry or be rough, that client will know that you care. Talk to your clients, apologize for having to hurry, tell jokes, ask them if you think something you’ve done may have bothered them (even if they can’t answer)   communicate. If possible, take a moment to do a little “extra,” such as opening a window shade or affixing a pin to a woman’s blouse. Anything you can do to let residents know that you regard them as equally valuable human beings will mean so much. A minute of kindness or careful attention can be remembered and cherished for a lifetime. This is not pity not giving to a subhuman creature in an attempt to free yourself from their suffering but compassion: the comradeship and care of one human heart to another, wanting to help.

How I feel having my care done has a lot to do with my caregiver’s attitude toward their work. I expect my caregiver to treat my body with the same respect and concern as they treat their own body. On the other hand, I understand the selflessness I ask of my caregivers and the need to truthfully consider how well I would live up to my standards if the situation were reversed. There is much difficulty inherent in the interdependent client/caregiver relationship, especially in a society where we are taught to take care of ourselves. However, requiring the help of another person need not be a painful or degrading experience, it can be a very rich experience of learning how to be kindness and compassion in action.

— Nicole