God Led Her to a Career of Caring for Seniors

When she lost her child-care job during the pandemic, she found a new calling caring for people living with dementia.

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Posted in , Jul 26, 2022

Allie Srgo; photo by Katye Martens Brier

I arrived at the Edgewood Centre, just over the state line in New Hampshire, at 9 a.m. sharp. It was my first day at the senior care facility as a licensed nursing assistant (or LNA) trainee. I had no idea what to expect. “Good morning, Allie,” the human resources director said. “You’ll be reporting to the south wing.” I tried to act unfazed, but I think I gasped.

The south wing. That was the dementia ward.

I had seen the residents who had Alzheimer’s. Their vacant expressions. Their stiffness. I’d heard they could be unpredictable, aggressive—mean even. I didn’t think I could connect with any of them. And if I couldn’t connect with them, how could I take good care of them?

I forced a smile. “Great,” I said to the HR director.

But I was scared to death. As I walked down the hall to the south wing, all I could think was, I miss my old life.

For 30 years, I had been a child-care professional, and I loved it. Toddlers were my specialty. Their inquisitive nature, their cuddliness, the fact that they are learning something new all the time. The terrible twos? That didn’t scare me. I could get down to their level and deal with any tantrum. I’d never wanted to do anything else.

Then came Covid.

I had been working at the child-care center at Edgewood, where we watched the kids of the staff members. Though I had been there for only a couple of months, I felt right at home. I had just figured out how to rearrange the toddler room to run more smoothly—and then the whole country went into lockdown. Edgewood had to operate with fewer staff, which meant fewer kids for me to look after. By the end of April, the child-care center shut down.

I went on unemployment. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

Then one day in mid-May, I was tying up loose ends with Edgewood’s HR director. “You know, the state of New Hampshire has this new program,” she said. “They’ll help you get your LNA degree, and you can start working in our assisted living facility almost immediately.”

That got my interest. I’d brought the toddlers to visit with the residents, and both the kids and the seniors had enjoyed the interaction. I knew there weren’t going to be openings in child care anytime soon. I couldn’t afford not to work; I had a daughter in college and a stepson in high school. Besides, I’m not the type who can sit around at home. I need to be doing something. So I signed up for a free eight-hour class.

I learned about feeding long-term-care residents, bathing them, using bedpans, changing linens. I passed a test, and the HR director put me on the schedule for the following Monday. I’d be working as what New Hampshire called a temporary health partner, doing onsite training for my LNA certification, which the facility would pay for.

That first day, I was assigned to shadow Celia, an experienced LNA. She had to feed one of the residents breakfast. The woman stared stonily ahead and refused to open her mouth. Before I knew it, the mashed bananas were tossed around the room. Like with the toddlers. Mealtime had been a mess back then too, but it was a raucous, fun mess.

I didn’t have much experience with dementia. Both of my parents had died in their sixties of cancer. I’d helped out with my mother-in-law, who had COPD. Toward the end, she’d started to forget things, and it was heartbreaking.

The feeding took 30 minutes. As Celia and I were leaving her room, the resident spoke. “Thank you,” she said. “I love you.” A small success.

We moved on to other residents and other tasks. Celia showed me how to read their charts—which outlined their habits, their dietary needs, if they wore hearing aids or glasses, their bathing schedules—and how to operate portable oxygen tanks. I was impressed when Celia effortlessly raised a cantankerous heavyset man with the machine lift. “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it,” Celia told me.

The final task of the day involved helping a woman get settled in her room. I got her a glass of water and found her eyeglasses. She called me a silly pet name. Then she giggled, which got me giggling too. This isn’t so bad, I thought.

Each day I learned a little more. Toward the end of the week, I started to do more on my own. My second time hooking up someone to the toilet lift, the strap fell off suddenly. The 200-pound woman lurched backward. I ran behind her and supported her under her arms. I couldn’t reach the call bell, so I yelled for help. People came running.

One of the techs said, “Maybe she shouldn’t be doing this by herself.” The nurse said, “No, Allie’s fine. It wasn’t her fault.” Hearing that boosted my confidence.

By Friday afternoon, I was bone-tired. Being an LNA was a physical job, and my body wasn’t used to it. Before I left, I walked down the hall, peeking into each room to wave goodbye to the residents. Some of them didn’t react. But others brightened a bit, even if they didn’t really recognize me. It struck me how lonely it must feel to be trapped in a mind that was failing.

That’s when I heard a voice inside me saying, “This is where you need to be. You can make a difference here.”

There was a lot I had to get used to. Like the studying. It had been almost 30 years since I had taken a class. Talk about intimidating! I sat at my kitchen table to watch the prerecorded lectures on my computer. I’d say to myself, Just do this for an hour.

It was a struggle. I learned to ignore everything else—my husband, the laundry, the TV. After an hour, I’d get up, stretch, snack. Then I’d tell myself, One more hour. One hour at a time, I got it done.

But when I took my LNA board exams, I didn’t pass the clinicals. I was devastated. My husband, Kevin, and my 17-year-old stepson had bought me new scrubs to celebrate. They gave them to me that night anyway.

When I took the test again and passed, my daughter was home from college and the three of them decorated the house. They put sticky notes in the stairwell saying things like “Great job” and “You’ll make the best LNA.”

Kevin has been so supportive of my new career, even though all the studying meant I couldn’t watch the Sunday NASCAR races with him. (Kevin and I are such huge NASCAR fans that we got married trackside at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.) The whole family is proud of me.

I have grown to love so many of the residents. I enjoy being creative, mostly in coming up with gentle ways to say, “No, you can’t do that.” Some workers get upset or frustrated and argue with the residents. I take everything in stride, the way I used to with the toddlers.

I had one gentleman in the common area who told his daughter over the phone, “I’ve been sitting here at the car dealership for three days, waiting for my car to be fixed!” She replied, frustrated, “No, Dad, your car is here at my house. You are at Edgewood.” Hearing that upset the man, so I went over. “Sorry about the wait,” I told him. “Your car is going to be done in 10 minutes.” He settled down, satisfied.

It’s a matter of putting yourself where the residents are and thinking what they’re thinking. Everyone just wants you to acknowledge what they’re saying, how they’re feeling.

With some residents, the connection goes deeper. There’s one gentleman from Boston. He’s a Navy veteran and my dad had been in the Navy, so we clicked. His short-term memory is gone; he can’t remember what I said a minute ago. But, boy, can he tell stories about his Navy adventures! And we’ve compared notes on places we like in Boston, including our favorite Chinese restaurant.

These south wing residents used to have full lives before dementia, and I love hearing about them. Unlike toddlers, who are constantly learning something new, people with dementia are constantly losing something—an ability, a word, a memory, a bit of themselves. I try to move past their symptoms and look for the person within—the Red Sox fan, the news junkie, the Navy man.

I think my personality is suited for this job. I’m easygoing, and I just roll with things. I laugh a lot. And I’ve learned a lot too. How to be more patient, more compassionate—after all, every one of us is on our own journey of aging. It can be a lonely journey without having someone familiar by your side. Most of the residents may not remember my name, but they know who I am. They know that I care about them.

That’s why I decided to work on Christmas Day, 2020. It was the first time I had ever missed Christmas morning with my family. But we were in the middle of the Covid pandemic, and the residents couldn’t have any visitors. I wanted them to see a familiar face. Nobody in my charge seemed to register that it was Christmas, but there was a good meal and I helped the residents open presents.

Later I walked down the hall, singing “Silent Night.”

Everyone was settled in their rooms. It was quiet.

Then, from one of the rooms, I heard a small voice joining in: “All is calm, all is bright.”

This was where I was meant to be. Gratitude swept over me, gratitude for my new, God-given calling. All was calm and bright, indeed.

Read 5 Ways to Approach Alzheimer’s Caregiving Compassionately

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