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More than heroes

Throughout the pandemic we often hear about health care heroes. A few months ago, we heard about them almost daily. There were signs, banners, extra meals brought in, news articles, and lots of public appreciation. Health care workers were celebrated in a way they hadn’t been before. Why did it take a pandemic for the world to realize this?

In long-term care I believe our care teams were certainly heroes long before the pandemic. For over 20 years I have witnessed firsthand how people who choose to work in long-term care are courageous beyond words and have super powers unlike any other. Their superpowers are easy to spot, even without a cape. Patience, compassion, empathy are three superpowers to name a few…there are many, many more.

For the nurses that chose long-term care as their life’s work, I have a special admiration. Over the years I’ve learned there is a sort of reputation for long-term care nurses; that seemingly a nurse may be considered “less than” if they go to work in long-term care. This incorrect assumption needs to be talked about and changed. Long-term care nurses have amazed me long before 2020. They not only care for the residents’ symptoms, they care for the whole person and their close families, too. They are advocates, counselors, friends, healers, companions, and they love them…all day, every day.

This didn’t just start to happen during the pandemic. Sure, the stakes were higher and there was more pressure, but the work, the heroic work, never changed. When nurses come to work in long-term care, we see in a very magnified way how patient they are and how empathy is a key nursing characteristic. They are leaders. They mentor, guide, and help not only the residents but the team they work with every day.

That team in long-term care is made up of residents and many individuals of all ages and life experiences. For some, being a caregiver is the first job they have ever had, the first time they had a schedule, professional expectations, and people other than their families relying on them for the most intimate of needs. Long-term care caregivers were also heroes long before the pandemic. Certified Nursing Assistants are the Wonder Women and Supermen we should be celebrating every single day. I can’t wait for the day we see scrubs, tennis shoes and gait belts as the #1 costume to dress up for Halloween. Caregivers should be celebrated always, admired often, and thanked every day.

Often Certified Nursing Assistants are in school while they are working, some are pursuing a career in nursing. What better training ground to learn how to make a difference in someone’s life? They can start doing that well before they become nurses. In long-term care you have the pleasure of being the one to make someone’s day every day. I’ve seen caregivers go out of their way when they have many tasks to complete to sing, dance, laugh, braid hair, hold hands, hug, cherish, and most importantly listen. They do all this as our residents sometimes find themselves in the most vulnerable state of their lives. If this isn’t a hero, I don’t know what is.

In our field there are plenty of other heroes involved. A support team who makes sure things are just right. The place is clean, the food is tasty, they create home. They make sure residents don’t live in a facility but in their home. Making sure all the simple pleasures are available. They do this work all while making sure residents feel loved and special. I’ve seen housekeepers develop the most meaningful bonds with residents. They know them and take time to hear the little important things. They have inside jokes, and they make sure everything is just right. During the pandemic they also had added responsibilities, but I would offer they took their jobs just as seriously before 2020 and, for that, should also be appreciated.

The health care heroes we all admired in 2020 aren’t going away. They have always been here and will always be here. Perhaps the silver lining is all of this is that we start to think about their passion and purpose as a calling only a certain few can answer. Only a special chosen few have the heart it takes to work in long-term care. They should be revered, admired and appreciated by all. The team I know consistently puts others’ needs before their own, and the pandemic shined a light on that, but they didn’t need the spotlight to be stars. They shine bright even when the nights are dark, the clouds are there, and the world has moved on.

They were heroes long before the pandemic and will be long after.

Julie Thorson is president and CEO of Friendship Haven

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