Interview with Father Bartolemeu Dias, CNA

Father Bart is a thoughtful, kind, and spiritual man who worked not only as a nursing home chaplain, but trained as a Certified Nursing Assistant prior to his four years in long-term care. He graciously consented to be interviewed for my blog, despite having moved on to other pursuits. What follows is an intimate and touching discussion of his experience at the Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, a Christian facility in Manhattan, N.Y. serving people of all faiths.

(Editor’s note: The following is portion of Dr. Barbera’s interview with Father Bartolemeu. For the full post, click here.)

Why did you decide to train as a CNA? How do you think your training affected your perspective?

I am a member of a Roman Catholic Religious Order called “The Little Brothers”. We live mixed among common, ordinary people, earning our bread through manual work, sharing their daily life, their joys and sorrows, and participating in their festivals and celebrations, like Jesus in Nazareth. As a Little Brother I learned carpentry and worked as a carpenter in India for 18 years.

Called by my Religious Order to New York, I was given the work to take care of the showers at the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men on the Bowery. So, for nine years, five days a week, every morning I welcomed homeless men at the showers. In the afternoons, when all had left, I would clean the place, the showers, etc, wash the towels and keep everything ready for the next morning.

After nine years, I felt it was time for a change. I had seen many of my Brothers in the Order working as Nursing Assistants and I had always wanted to learn that skill. Moreover, I had recently followed six months of psychotherapy as part of my personal human growth, mainly to learn how I could handle a deeply seated feeling of dissatisfaction and insecurity I carry within me. During those sessions I became aware that, as a grown up man, the path to manage those feelings—in short, to take care of myself—was to take of others. “To nurture” was the catch word my fellow worker at the Holy Name Center, David Batista, would use to describe this skill. David would say that anything you do with love is “nurturing,” whether it is washing the car or cleaning the windows. From him I learned that “nurturing yourself and nurturing others” is the same skill: It is to be a nurse to yourself as well as to others!

So, it was clear to me that I wanted to train as a CNA. The course itself lasted only a month. I was impressed to see how well done this course was, especially how it touched every aspect of human life, with great importance being given to the spiritual dimension.

During the gap of two months between the academic course and the State Exam we were to learn practice as a CNA. I was glad when Cabrini Nursing Home accepted me as an apprentice/volunteer CNA. I had chosen Cabrini because it was only five minutes walking distance from the place where I lived on the Lower East Side, N.Y.

After the Exam, when I got my certificate as a Nursing Assistant, I approached Cabrini Nursing Home to ask to work there as a CNA. The Administrator said they needed me as a chaplain/priest. I said “yes” on the condition that I may be allowed to use my skills as a CNA. I was thrilled when the Administrator replied: “So much the better.”

That is how I worked at Cabrini Nursing Home, without the people, I mean the visitors and the staff, knowing or distinguishing in me the priest and the CNA, especially during the first two years. As to the residents, I always introduced myself as a chaplain/priest. The fact that I combined my skills of a CNA to my work as chaplain enriched immensely my relations both with the residents and their families as well as the rest of the staff. The fact that I was a CNA made me understand the residents’ suffering better.

One of the things which has touched me the most, and which I would call “the spirituality of a resident of a nursing home” is the following: One of the things that those of us who are not in a nursing home find very difficult to handle in daily life is to know to wait. We find it difficult to wait for the bus, for the train, for a doctor’s appointment. We get upset when something unpleasant happens, when our flight is canceled, when we get stranded, etc.

Now, that is precisely what a resident of a nursing home is going through all the time from morning to evening. He/she is dependent on others, family, nurses, CNAs. He/she is waiting for the CNA to come to dress them up, to serve them the food, to help them with the toilet needs, to give them a bath, to take them to go to see the doctor, etc. It is endless. I have tried to look at the residents at Cabrini with deep respect and sympathy and I have tried to learn from them, and I’m still trying.

Is there anything you’d like people to know about the CNAs job?

A CNA’s job is tough and stressful and a very sensitive one too. The CNAs are in fact the backbone of a nursing home. They are those who are the closest to the residents, day in and day out, attending to their most basic human needs. The nurses depend almost entirely on them. One of the teachers of the CNA course I took said: “It is the CNAs who make or break the nurse.”

I would like the family members of the residents to be more compassionate toward the CNAs. But more than that I hope the CNAs themselves learn to be compassionate toward themselves, by learning to do what they can, and to be happy to do what they can.

Read the rest of the interview here. Dr. Barbera is an author and a licensed psychologist consulting in long-term care facilities in the New York City area. She frequently lectures on subjects related to psychology, aging, and nursing homes. Dr. Barbera is available for private consulting with organizations, institutions, and individuals around eldercare issues. Visit her personal blog at

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