If it breaks your heart – follow that path
The role of caring for others can make your heart sing! It can also break your heart. I have learned that when you find something that breaks your heart, you know you have found a path leading to your purpose and your advocacy.
When I was a young caregiver in a nursing home in the 1970’s, I felt excited and honored to have the opportunity to care for elders. I took my CNA class and was ready to begin my journey. Little did I know at the time that this was my apprenticeship into eldercare and would one day become my life’s work.
Nursing Homes in the 1970’s were not like they are today. Filled with anticipation of this honorable work, I found that I was forced to line people up, wrapped in bath blankets sitting in ‘potty chairs’ outside the bathing room. I was assigned the job of ‘bath aide’ and one-by-one the residents were wheeled in, and scrubbed down, and wheeled out. Some of them screaming, or kicking, or crying, or simply silent. When I indignantly spoke to the Charge Nurse about how this felt so disrespectful to me, she told me not to get too ‘attached’ to these old people as they are going to die soon anyway.
She said, “The tasks are of primary importance to keep people clean and fed. Just do what you are told.” My job required turning contracted bodies every two hours, taking vitals, attending to incontinence needs, feeding 6 people at a time at a U shaped table, shoveling the food into their mouths like birds in a nest. I saw the look of horror, sadness, and resignation on the faces of these elders. And I was told it was against the rules to ‘get too attached.” It was horrifying, and my heart was broken.
One overnight shift, around midnight I decided to ‘break the rules.’ I sat with a a very old woman. She never spoke, and silently endured her situation. My hurting heart felt drawn to her as she was quietly weeping. I sat next to her and I held her hand. I looked into her beautiful green eyes filled with tears, and I began to cry. I laid my head on her shoulder and I cried (actually I sobbed). She began to stroke my hair, and then she began to sing softly. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mamma’s gonna buy you a Mockingbird…You will be the sweetest little baby in town.”
It made my heart sing In that moment – feeling her touch – hearing her voice – allowing her to care for me.
As I left work the next morning, I was filled with a mixture of emotions. The elder woman made my heart sing in a moment of brokenness. At the same time, I was filled with anger and sadness. I was heartbroken! How could people who had lived long and beautiful lives be treated this way? I understood that their bodies needed to be cared for, but how that was done was shockingly disrespectful. It broke my heart to see people sitting alone in wheelchairs, slumped over at tables with no respect for the wholeness of their spirit. I was outraged that as a caregiver, I was not allowed to attend to the needs of the human spirit – the need to connect, to be loved, to be respected, to be self-actualized.
What breaks your heart can define your purpose
I left that job and didn’t return to eldercare until many years later, but this experience ignited a fire in my belly. My heart went out to caregivers, who are deserving of kindness, and opportunities to grow too in this important work. I wanted eldercare workers to be respected as eldercare professionals. And while, yes, the tasks are important, there is no reason why caregivers cannot be inspired to practice care in a way that they can be in partnership and in joy with those they are caring for.
I came back to eldercare in Assisted Living in the late 1990’s. In 2003 I heard about the work of Dr. Bill Thomas, founder of the Eden Alternative. Dr. Thomas has focused on changing the culture of care since the early 1990’s. His approach to person-centered, elder-directed care initially came to life in nursing homes and has since expanded its reach to all care settings, including Assisted Living and Memory Care.
When Dr. Thomas was the Medical Director of a nursing home in upstate NY, he recognized that older people were dying from “plagues of the human spirit” – loneliness, helplessness and boredom.
Yes! This was exactly what I had experienced when I was a C.N.A. as a young woman! I took a 3 day workshop to learn more about the Eden Alternative, and later I went on to become a Certified Eden Alternative Educator, and an advocate for an elder-directed, person-centered philosophy.
“An Elder-directed community commits to creating a Human Habitat where life revolves around close and continuing contact with people of all ages and abilities, as well as plants and animals. It is these relationships that provide the young and old alike with a pathway to a life worth living.“ – Dr. Bill Thomas from “10 principles of the Eden Alternative.”
I learned, and I now teach the antidotes to loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. Below are three of the Eden Alternative Principles that reveal the antidote.
- Loving companionship is the antidote to loneliness. Elders deserve easy access to human and animal companionship.
- An Elder-directed community gives the opportunity for elders to give care as well as to receive care. This is the antidote to helplessness.
- An Elder-directed community imbues daily life with variety and spontaneity by creating an environment in which unexpected and unpredictable interactions and happenings can take place. This is the antidote to boredom.
Here you may read all of the 10 Principles of the Eden Alternative.
Since that day, many years ago – when I reflect on how the respect and value of the caregivers reflects directly on the value and care of the elder – it resonates with me and validates that I am on the path that I was called to follow.
Caring is what makes us human. Now, that makes my heart sing!
About the author: Jean Garboden is an Elder Advocate and Eden Alternative Educator with over 30 years’ experience in not-for-profit and for-profit healthcare organizations. She is honored to lead the mission and values culture development for Compass Senior Living in Eugene, Oregon. Jean lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she enjoys the weather and volunteers with the Nevadans for the Common Good, advocating for caregivers and elders in southern Nevada