13 March, 2016

Why nursing homes are hellish places

I just found something I wrote last year and thought it was worth posting. Warning: it's very dark!

Nursing homes are hellish places. I can’t speak for every nursing home in the world. I worked in one for 8 months, have been in a few other ones (training, working with clients who lived in nursing homes, etc.), and have been a support worker in various other settings (some of these things are also true in those settings). I think there’s a system in place that causes residents of nursing homes to often be in hellish situations–treated roughly, severely physically neglected, and denied kindness, respect, and freedom at a time in their lives that is likely to be very confusing and painful.

The people who appear to be responsible for this are the staff who work directly with the residents–the aides and charge nurses (LVNs). And these are the easiest people to blame when something bad happens, like a resident getting injured or sick due to neglect. Not only does it seem to be the aide or LVN’s fault, but they’re often from marginalized groups–poor, women, immigrants, POC–so it’s easier for higher ups to project something negative on them. They weren’t empathetic, they’re not kind, they were too lazy to take care of their resident. Due to language or cultural barriers, the aide may not be able to present themselves in the best light or make the best impression. It also is easier to fire or punish this person than to change the system.

However, what’s actually happening is that they’re put in an impossible situation.

They’re paid very little, and aside from the obvious stresses and difficulties of being poor, they may be doing things like picking up extra shifts–so, like, working 24 hours in a row. They might be trying to raise kids, work another job, or be in school at the same time so they may not be sleeping much or at all. Obviously, all this stuff affects how functional someone is and how fast/well they can work.

But there’s the other thing which is that too much work is assigned. Like, when I worked at a nursing home, the minimum required ratio at night was 1 aide to 24 residents. (Often it was like thirtysomething residents–but since that wasn’t actually legal I won’t talk about that.)

So, let’s say 12 of these people aren’t continent and are supposed to be changed every 2 hours, let’s say changing & cleaning someone takes 10 minutes. (Which I’m absolutely sure someone who doesn’t know anything about it would say is SO much longer than it really takes! You should be able to do it in 5 minutes! But also it’s against the law to have diapers and wipes out and visible on a table in someone’s room, they should be away in a drawer. But you should be able to do it in 5 minutes even though you might have to change the person’s bed and clothes. Well…I’m saying 10 minutes. Sorry.)

Anyway, doing that job already takes 2 hours. But also there’s helping people who put on their call light asking for help getting to the bathroom, or for a glass of water or something. So let’s say 3 people do that, the water takes 5 minutes. One person goes to the bathroom and back in 5 minutes. The other person goes to the bathroom and sits there for a long time–you’re supposed to stay with this person because they are a fall risk. (You are responsible if you leave them alone and they fall.) So the whole trip takes 15 minutes. Now we’re at 2 hours and 25 minutes.

Also, someone is confused and is getting out of bed, walking up and down the hall, and walking into other people’s rooms and touching them, which is scaring those people. You realize this is going on, so you go and convince that person to go back to bed. This takes 10 minutes. (Also, the LVN finally comes on the hall–you haven’t seen her all night–and wants to drug the person to keep them from getting up, which I’m pretty sure is illegal, and is definitely a horrible thing to do. But maybe you can see where this kind of decision is coming from.)

We are now at 2 hours and 35 minutes for what was supposed to be 2 hours of work, and our hypothetical self is working without ever taking a break or going to the bathroom or anything. Also, I forgot that you’re supposed to be filling out this computerized chart of what everyone ate and if anyone went to the bathroom, and if so, how much, etc. I don’t really remember how long this takes overall, but let’s say that you do it for 20 minutes during this “2 hour period.” So we’re basically at 3 hours. You are working at a speed that isn’t realistic; you’re also probably exhausted because of your life circumstances that I mentioned earlier; and you are 1 hour behind in your work.

Oh, by the way, pain: getting the nurse (who is stressed & busy) and trying to get her to give a pain pill to someone who is screaming in pain. And, by the way, emotional pain, just kidding. Like, someone is terrified, or miserable. That person is crying. You’d like to go and talk to them and keep them company. Just kidding, it’s 3 people. You’d like to go talk to these people. But you can’t talk to any of them, you don’t have time. But you go talk to one of them.

Then, you hear an alarm going off, indicating that someone who’s a fall risk is walking around, but you’re pretty sure it’s someone who, while she’s technically a fall risk, is always getting up and walking around by herself, but she never falls. So you keep talking to this person who’s upset. The other person falls and is seriously injured. Also, you’re in a lot of trouble.

Basically, the actual circumstances of the job encourage you to not care about people at all–to do a half assed job with the physical act of taking care of people (not cleaning them very well when you change them; just throwing random clothes on them; not brushing their teeth; transferring people in a very fast brusque way that is physically uncomfortable for them), never mind their actual preferences (you’ll help them get to the bathroom when YOU can carve out the time to do that) or God forbid their FEELINGS (how could you possibly have time to just sit and talk with someone?). The job is SET UP LIKE THIS because the workload is not realistic. Meanwhile, the higher ups expect you to get all your work done, AND the things they officially ask of you are like, to be gentle and polite and respect people’s preferences.

So if the aide doesn’t get their work done or is short with people, the higher ups are like, oh they’re a bad aide. (To be clear, I obviously don’t understand why someone would speak cruelly to an old person they’re taking care of. I do understand neglect and roughness in this context–the former of which especially can be really dangerous.)

And the higher ups maybe aren’t evil. I’ve never been one. But when I was an aide, the nurse manager was this very soft spoken lady who seemed very sweet and caring (btw she also came off kind of upper class and seemed to find the working class aides rude and uncaring and stuff) but like…at best, she just didn’t get it! And I’m guessing that the further away you get from the actual situation, the less you get it. And those are the people who set the job up.