By: Rachel Stewart
As told to: Niki Chen
The novel coronavirus pandemic upended many lives: At the start of 2020, Rachel Stewart was living in Nashville, working as a graphic designer. Now, she works in a nursing home in Canada, the only member of her family who can be close to her grandmother.
When COVID started I lost my job in the U.S. and had to move back to my home country of Canada. After quarantining for two months, I heard that the nursing home where my grandma lived was looking for help in assisting the PSWs, or personal support workers.
I had previously worked in that nursing home one summer as a life-enrichment student while I was studying art therapy, so I had prior experience — but this time it was a huge switch towards the caregiving side of things, rather than playing board games.
I had been living in the U.S. for five years, but because the move back was so sudden I wasn’t able to say goodbye to anybody, so I was in a bit of a rut. However, I realized that while everyone was struggling during COVID, those in nursing homes were having an especially hard time, especially since they were completely isolated from everyone they loved. It’s also difficult for the residents because a lot of their relationships depended on physical touch. I wanted to be able to help, and I don’t want to look back on this someday focusing on how I didn’t add to my graphic design resumé. Rather than helping myself, I just wanted to help others.
My grandma is my dad’s mom, and she will be 95 next month. My dad is the youngest of five kids, so out of the grandkids I’m on the younger end. My grandma has a great sense of humor, and our conversations are always light-hearted. We don’t talk about COVID or dementia, because it’s hard to communicate when you have to explain the situation over and over again. Rather, we talk about our favorite memories, or sometimes I have her direct or lead the conversation so we can talk about whatever she wants to.
I don’t remember when she was first diagnosed, but it was a long time ago. However, it was definitely very gradual, and because I had experience the first time I worked in the nursing home, it was easier for me to accept what was going on and have a conversation. I was taught that you enter their world; you don’t want to try and bring them into yours. So for me, it was a lot easier to just jump in with her.
As for other family members, it was harder for them to accept what was happening. My grandma’s sense of humor, however, has been one thing that has steadily held on. One blessing in disguise about the disease is how I can use the same jokes over and over again, and she can still laugh about it and we can have a great time.
Lessons From the Care Facility
For my training at the care facility, the main thing they taught us about is respect. They teach you to treat each resident as if they were your own grandparents. You don’t talk to them as if they were some random old person. And now, it’s super fun because you build relationships with them and it feels like you have a whole bunch of grandparents. We’ve been COVID-free the entire time, so the residents are still able to interact with each other and with the staff. We maintain physical distancing, but we’re still able to enjoy group activities together like bingo or watching movies.
As a PSW assistant I’m not allowed to do any care. I’m just there to be an extra pair of eyes and hands, and as the PSWs are helping the residents get to breakfast, I’m cleaning their bedrooms, helping them put on their shoes, providing snacks and drinks, and assisting PSWs with lifts and things like that. Generally, if anyone needs help, I’m there.
The coolest part of my job right now is kind of unexpected: it’s the little tiny tasks that the PSWs don’t have time for. But because I do them, like helping put on someone’s shoes, or straightening pillows, I’m able to slow down and take the time to talk with the residents. And it’s not the PSWs faults, but since they have a schedule and are so busy, they have to get everyone to different places so they’re always moving quickly. In contrast, I’m able to sit with the residents, slow down, and talk to them.
The coolest part of my job right now is kind of unexpected:
it’s the little tiny tasks that the PSWs don’t have time for.
But because I do them, like helping put on someone’s shoes,
or straightening pillows, I’m able to slow down and
take the time to talk with the residents.
Sometimes they’ll be having a bad day, and I get the opportunity to talk through their day and ask them how I can help. Another thing I’ve noticed is that their mood differs day by day, and even hour by hour. It’s hard because when you walk into someone’s room, you never know where their brains are at, like how old they think they are. When it’s further along in their decline where they’re fully convinced that they’re 16, there’s a bit of blissful unawareness. What’s harder to see are the people who are at the beginning stages of that and who know there’s something wrong. That’s the kind of stuff I have a hard time watching, because my empathetic heart makes me cry when they cry, and sometimes I have to lock myself in the linen closet so I can do so.
It’s hard to keep it together sometimes, and I can’t just bottle it up because there are a lot of emotions and weight with a disease like Alzheimer’s, so I cry at home or in the linen closet but I try not to show it in front of the residents. Watching people, and registering that their brain deteriorates, is the hardest part about long-term care facilities. It’s things like not being able to go to the bathroom on their own anymore, or dropping their juice and crying because they don’t get why their hand won’t grip the cup.
My takeaway as a caregiver is that if you have a spare two minutes or maybe even thirty seconds, take the time to treat them like a human being in the emotional sense. They’re not just there for you to change their clothes and get them off to breakfast; rather, you should have the conversation and ask them what they want to do. When I am helping them find an outfit, I try to give them the option of what to wear, or if choices make them stressed, I make sure to still have that conversation. For example, I’ll say, “Hey, I picked out this shirt for you today. Purple looks great on you!” Even when you dress them, affirmations like that make them feel respected and super important.