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Let’s do better than normal

We’ve all said it. “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” I think there are times during the last few weeks I’ve either said it or thought it many times during the day. During the pandemic there are levels of “normalcy” that come and go. Sometimes they last more than a day, other times they are fleeting thoughts of normalcy, as if at some day we are all going to wake up and everything is “normal.” As my dad would tell you, “It ain’t gonna happen.”

So, if we are left with this feeling of, “If only things would get back to normal.” We are essentially waiting for a day that will never come. You know what? That’s OK. There are so many aspects of “normal” that continue to surface from 2020 that should be kicked to the curb. From my perspective, we can do so much better in our approach to aging and long-term care.

Nursing homes are often the punch lines in jokes about growing older. Still today it’s socially acceptable to talk about nursing homes in a way that is negative, demeaning and condescending. Over the years I have become completely turned off by people who say things like, “We had to put mom in a home over the weekend,” as if mom is an object to be placed somewhere; mom is no longer someone who cared for, guided and loved you all your life but a thing that needs to be “put” somewhere. If returning to normal means going back to approaching long-term care this way, I don’t want to go back.

Not only is the perception flawed, but our system remains flawed. In many ways, our work is approached in an institutionalized “one size fits all” way. There is no room for human error, and safety continues to trump quality of life at all costs. The pandemic has shown a very bright light on this. I admit I have been a part of the problem. I didn’t fight hard enough. When regulations essentially stopped life, I went along with it. Looking back there was certainly some fear involved, but there was also a desire to go with the flow and not rock the boat. How very wrong.

One thing no one is really talking about in our field of long-term care is the guilt that is washing over us; the guilt of not doing more, the guilt of staying quiet and not pushing back more when we were told what we had to do. I could offer 100 excuses for why we didn’t, but it doesn’t really matter now, 2020 is behind us. The overwhelming responsibility of enforcing “guidelines” that didn’t always make sense became “normal.” There wasn’t a moment where any of us felt good about what we were doing. We felt it was necessary and we didn’t have a choice. Explaining that every single day was “normal,” and I would never want to go back to that.

There is so much work to do. There is recovery for sure. There is rebuilding of trust that must happen. Not only with each other, but with the regulators who enforced “guidelines” that tied our hands in such difficult ways many of us became paralyzed by the day-to-day work. There needs to be a greater appreciation for long-term care. We are not the silent home where people simply go to die. The people that live in long-term care settings should not be treated less than. We are the home where people go in order to live with dignity, respect and to be revered for reaching a point in life where others should look towards those we serve for guidance, acceptance and unconditional love.

My hope is that the pandemic teaches us “normal” isn’t the answer. A true appreciation for life, regardless of age must be the goal. Looking at a flawed system and completely putting the person at the center of the system is something we can and should do. I hope to be a part of that solution, but everyone has a role. It’s bigger than one person.

Raising awareness and shining a light is just a first step. Sure, getting back too normal would be nice, but I’m hoping for better than normal. I’m hoping we can create a new outlook on aging and our field so that all appreciate, respect and honor the work we do.

Each month, I not only hope to bring you inside the world of long-term care, but I also hope to celebrate a silver lining with you. The silver lining, while this editorial may feel a little dark, is that peeking through the clouds is the realization that “normal” isn’t necessarily the best we can do. As we all look towards a day where we can function without COVID-19 being a daily thought, maybe the fact that it still remains reminds us all of our desire to do better. I certainly know it will for me.

Julie Thorson is president and CEO of Friendship Haven.

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