“Can I ask an unrelated question?”
I often get this question as an appointment with a college student is wrapping up. It is one of my favorite questions.
It’s like that Forrest Gump box of chocolates deal. You never know what you’re going to get.
Sometimes students want to know where I get my hair cut in our college town (and I’m flattered for days). Sometimes they want to talk to me about whether they should make an appointment at our counseling center. Sometimes they have seen pictures of my dogs on Twitter and want to know what vet we use (Den Herder in Waterloo, IA…this is not a paid ad but they are great). Sometimes they want to know who to contact in Financial Aid if your parents got laid off due to COVID and you can’t pay your U-bill.
Here is her unrelated question: “How do I keep from getting attached to all the people while I work in memory care?”
She is a freshmen and just moved into her residence hall a couple weeks ago. She applied at a local memory care community and got the job. She’s only worked a few shifts in training. She tells me she’s already attached to the residents. (As a side note, she’s not a Gerontology major now…but I hope she is soon.)
I was startled by how difficult it was for me to answer this question. I don’t know how you keep from getting attached. I had no tips or expert advice to offer.
I am attached to the adults with dementia that I’ve gotten to work. For that matter, I have an attachment to students I get to work with.
I don’t cross boundaries, but I’m a human being. And I care. I think’s probably hard to care and not become attached.
Then it occurred to me that maybe I should think about the question. Maybe we should ask whether or not it’s okay to get attached to the residents.
I starting thinking about family members who have loved ones in facilities and cannot visit due to COVID. I realized that many of those families are surviving only because they know there is an employee in the facility who is attached to their loved one.
Imagine if you couldn’t see your mom, dad, grandparent, spouse, sibling, or friend for months and you felt that no one was attached to them during that timeframe.
I understand professional boundaries. I understand burnout. I understand that you should be able to let go after your shift. I know that professional caregiving is stressful and you need to step away, relax, and regenerate. I encourage you do all these things and understand you are only one person who can only do so much.
But I’d worry about a professional caregiver who wasn’t attached to residents.
And I have a suspicion that professional caregivers are even more attached now that family visitation is limited.
As a director of nursing at a nursing home recently told me, “It’s the residents and employees against COVID. We are all on the same team, and we’re in this together.”
Whenever I post something positive about nursing home employees, I get some messages from you all to remind me that not all nursing home employees are great. Before you email me, know that I get it. If you’ve had a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living, you’ve likely run into caregivers who weren’t up to par. You have every right to speak up and voice concerns. We have to advocate for our loved ones and I support you in doing so.
But, please, if there is a nursing home employee who takes good care of your loved one, mention them to management as well.
Many of the gerontology majors that I work with are employed at nursing homes. You know those pictures you see of college students out at bars and parties without masks…you won’t see them in those pictures. They sacrifice parts of college life because they can’t get COVID. They’d be devastated if they infected nursing home residents.
As for my college freshmen, she had some great questions about how communicate with her residents. She wanted to know if it was okay to imply that someone’s loved one was still alive when they were wandering around looking for them. She wanted to how to calm someone down when they were agitated. She wanted to know what to tell residents who wanted to go home.
She’s going to be great.