I am doing a series on how COVID is impacting those living with dementia, family caregivers, and professional caregivers.
Today I am telling Kelsey’s story.
She’s a Gerontology major, and we had a Zoom appointment recently.
She’s 20 years old and works as a CNA (certified nursing assistant) at a nursing home. Kelsey is a pseudonym. She told me a few things about the nursing home she works at that she doesn’t want to get back to her coworkers and supervisors.
She started working at the nursing home in January. It’s her first job. Literally. Her very first job. I want to tell her that any job she has in the future will seem easy after working at a nursing home during COVID.
During the day, she goes to classes. In the evenings, she goes to work. She is working about twice as many hours as she’d like because they are short-staffed. She can’t say no, and she needs the money anyway.
She lives in the residence halls. Her friends wear their masks around campus and in class, as required, but they get dolled up to go to the bars on weekends. She wishes she could afford her own apartment or even a single room in the residence halls.
She’s had a few awkward conversations with friends about being more COVID-conscious. She’s explained that if she gets COVID she could unknowingly bring it into the nursing home…and people could die. They say they’ll do better, but they don’t.
There have been a few outbreaks at the nursing home since March. I ask her how many COVID tests she’s had, and she says she can’t remember, but it’s a lot. She’s tested negative every time.
One day she woke up with a sore throat. She called the nursing home to say she wouldn’t be there, but her supervisor stressed that they were really short-staffed and the residents wouldn’t receive the care they needed if she stayed home. She went to work. Fortunately, her sore throat went away and she chalked it up to allergies.
In March, the nursing home decided to create a COVID wing. They moved some people around and suddenly an entire hall was empty…until it wasn’t.
Once the first resident tested positive, there was a conversation about who would work in the COVID wing. They offered a very slight temporary wage increase for those who worked in the COVID wing. Kelsey said that she’d be willing to take care of residents who have COVID.
Her parents were mad but someone had to do it. And Kelsey knew she was healthy and thought it was likely (but not guaranteed) that she’d breeze through COVID if she had it. More than anything, she needed the money.
A couple residents at the facility have died of COVID. Kelsey was close to one of them, a women with dementia who had no family to speak of. In a way, she was grateful there was no family to be there…since they wouldn’t have been able to be there.
Kelsey stayed late to be with the resident as she passed. Then she went back to the residence halls. She had to take a quiz and study for a test.
I’m Kelsey’s advisor (and she gave me permission to say this), and she’s not having a great semester. We’ve already discussed that she might have to retake a couple of classes.
Part of it is that she’s working a lot and has less time to commit to school. More than that, it’s the heaviness of the situation.
She’s focused on life and death issues at work. Then she has to come home and study for geology course. She says most of her coursework just seems trivial and unimportant.
As her advisor, I don’t have a good counterpoint. I’ve been pestering her about making appointment at the university counseling center—-because this is a lot.
She’s 20. Our society doesn’t think she is responsible enough to drink, but she’s caring for COVID-positive nursing home residents at the end of life. Wrap your brain around that.
I can’t help but ask myself if I could have done this at 20.
I don’t think I could do it now.
Kelsey says the most difficult part is seeing other college students take unnecessary risks–and sometimes putting her at unnecessary risk. She has literal nightmares about everyone at the nursing home dying because she got COVID from her roommate who went to the bar.
I am doing my best to support students through 2020, but I don’t know what to say.
I ask how much longer she can do this. I can see she’s exhausted. She says she can’t quit because she is worried about her residents. She doesn’t like the idea of residents not seeing their families for the holidays so she needs to be there to make it a little bit brighter.
She tells me that she’s grown a lot this year. At some point, she wants to chat with me about careers in hospice. She says that perhaps a “gift” of COVID–if there is such a thing–is that it’s made her realize that she is capable of being with those who are dying. She’s surprised herself, and she seems proud.
She should be proud, really.
It’s an awful situation, and she’s showing up. But there’s a cost:
Her mental health. Her grade point average. Her relationships with friends. Her social life.
I imagine there’s a cost for every healthcare worker who works with people who have COVID.
As for Kelsey, she’ll keep going. She took on extra hours this week because a coworker tested positive. She’s even signed up for a course over the winter term.
As an advisor, I am supposed to talk to her about careers and tell her what classes she needs to take.
But I can’t lie. I am concerned about her as a person.