A young woman on the frontline of senior care

My daughter, Annie, is spending her summer college break as a dietary services worker at a local hospital, which includes a senior behavioral health unit. She delivers meals and helps patients with their menu selection. The hours are long and the pay is low. Oh, and the uniform my fashion-conscious daughter is required to wear is “hideous,” she claims.

The “lifers,” those veteran frontline employees who work fulltime at the hospital, tend to resent these temporary student workers, who they perceive as privileged and pampered. At least in my daughter’s case, nothing could be further from the truth. She comes from a family of modest means and has worked for most of her teen years to cover expenses. But, with her warm smile, strong work ethic and unassuming manner, Annie has won over her coworkers. Now they consider her one of them.

Dietary workers, like most frontline caregivers, often bear the brunt of patients’ frustration and displeasure. Many a shift Annie has been berated for any number of issues—from food quality to the delivery schedule. She’s even had visiting family members lash out at her. But what has surprised me most is the way Annie has responded to the seniors she serves on her daily rounds—with a comforting compassion and patience that I’ve discerned from the stories she’s shared. (This is the same daughter who, just a few years ago, tortured her poor mother with rolled eyes, stony silences and slammed doors when asked to change the cat litter or find another ride to the mall.)

Working with seniors who are suffering from dementia, paranoia, suicidal tendencies or other behavioral issues, Annie admits she was initially scared to interact with them. But with time she’s come to see them not as “cases” but as the very real people they are. I asked her what she does when they yell at her or threaten her. “I just try not to take it personally and try to understand their fear and pain.”

Some of the stories are funny; others heartbreaking. She spoke of one well-to-do but confused elderly woman who insisted on “fixing up” 19-year-old Annie with her “catch” of a socially prominent middle-aged son. Annie perceptively didn’t correct the woman; instead, she expressed thanks for her efforts and agreed to keep the senior's son in mind if she ever broke up with her current boyfriend.

Then there was the lonely gentleman who repeatedly called Annie “son” and asked her to stay and visit with him for just a bit longer. She did just that.

Grace under pressure. Respect, empathy and patience when confronted by difficult people in trying circumstances. I don’t know where these traits in Annie came from but I’m happy that she possesses them. They will serve her well regardless of the career path she chooses—which currently is leaning toward healthcare. Her experience as a senior caregiver has been more than just a temporary job. It’s been a continuing education in the subject of human relations. I think she’s on the road to a passing grade.

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