Saturday, May 17, 2008

I Call Them My People

There is really no name that fits them better. To me they are not customers or residents, or employers. They are not my grandmother or grandfather, not my great aunt or uncle. They are individuals I care for at work. They are elderly people I tuck into bed, keep in dry diapers and peek at through the night hours to make sure they are warm and safe.

Oh, and they all happen to have Alzheimers Disease.

Some are more deeply lost in the disease than others but all have been deemed vulnerable enough to require a living situation in full lock down. I pass through a coded door to enter their world and punch in a secret code to exit at the end of my shift. The hours in the middle are technically called ‘work’ but are rewarding enough that most days I don’t think about how the money that shows up in my account every two weeks is at all tied to this place.

I was not supposed to end up in this job category. My degree is in elementary education and all my vocational interest has been tied to caring for little people. Fifteen years at home, being a major life influence on my own offspring, kept me out of the classroom. But suddenly the oldest was starting high school and the youngest first grade. A move to New York brought us closer to east coast family but plucked us down into a much higher cost of living. The need for a supplemental income was hard to ignore.

Early on it was apparent the school district was off my list of possible employers. Part time work is scarce and snatched up by the mile long waiting list. So I searched for options.

Through the classifieds, through the internet, I cruised Craig’s list and job sites, hunting for the opportunity to make just a little extra money within hours that wouldn’t totally upset our balance at home.

I put in applications at the YMCA. Then I crossed the parking lot and applied at the town library. Both seemed good options. Both were places I visited often and both employed many part time workers. I loved to work out and loved to read. Surely those skills could earn me a place of employment.

But neither called.

One call did come. Not the call I was expecting. Just past the library and then past the shiny new YMCA, at the end of a short dead end road, is an assisted living facility. Just for kicks I saturated that cul-de-sac with applications and dropped one off at Golden Acres. With little to no experience with the elderly I wrote off that application almost as quickly as I submitted it. But it was the only one that called and it offered immediate employment. The budget was whining, so I bit.

At the intake interview I learned that the only openings were on the overnight shift. The bank account was on life support so I said okay. It’s only part time anyway, I assured myself. I could survive a few weeks until the day shifts opened up.

My first night I met Donna and Chris. She had been in elderly hospice care for twenty five years, he was a young mortuary science student, earning money for school and using the long quiet hours at night to study. They showed me around then made a prediction.

“You’ll stay on overnights. It’s the best shift there is. We have great people on overnights and the pace is much slower. You don’t want to move to days.”

By the fourth night I knew they were right. Aside from a few light jobs, like setting the table for breakfast and throwing in a few loads of laundry, my main job is watching over my mostly sleeping charges. I sit in a large, fully lit living room and watch TV. And read. And work on writing projects. And write letters to friends. And wait for my people to need me.

When they do, because of insomnia or worries that keep them up, I have time. Nothing but time.

Slowly I have come to know them, each in their own moments. We have none of the busyness of daytime to distract us. Unlike my daytime co-workers, I don’t have to make sure residents are shuttled to activities, or dressed and ready for a family member to take them to a doctor’s appointment. We have long minutes and long hours to talk and share life stories and discuss the fluffy dogs we watch on the re-run dog shows airing all night on Animal Planet.

The life details their dementia riddled minds can’t recall, I fill in by scanning their charts in the nurses station. I learn tidbits that come in handy in later conversations and help spark new stories.

“So, you have a son named Michael? Tell me about him.”

“You used to live in Baltimore. Did you love being near the ocean?”

As the stories spill out I become wrapped up in these people. They started as a name on a door and a specific basket of laundry and, bit by bit, moment by 2 a.m. moment, they became Marie, and Doc and sweet Jeanne.

The unexpected blessing has been knowing this new demographic. I am able to love them and accept them for who they are today. I have no experience of what they were like before this awful disease robbed them of critical brain pathways. I have none of the baggage their family brings along when they come to sit and hold hands and remind them over and over who they are and where they come from. I accept them in neutral and love them through the odd behaviors that Alzheimers can bring.

Maybe it is some kind of karmic payback for all the people who cared for my own grandmother as she lay in that faraway nursing home for so many years. My random cards and gifts were not the same comfort as the woman who rubbed her back every day and spoon fed her applesauce. Now, just maybe, I can be that same comfort to someone else’s grandmother, when they can’t seem to face another day of visiting the stranger in their grandmother’s body.

I am not sure exactly when it switched over in my mind. When Barbara stopped being just an old lady tucked in a bed and became a person I cared about individually. When I let myself start worrying about Mr. Grey when I was home and not due back in to work for days. But the transformation is now complete and I am in way too deep

Even when disruptions of the day interrupt my catch up sleep, I never dread going back into work. The kids are put to bed, a lunch bag packed and I leave the house at a quarter till eleven. I drive down empty streets, past the dark houses of neighbors. Sometimes the light of the full moon leads my way. But I’m not just going to work. I’m on a mission of sorts. I’m going to check on my people.

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