A falcon, or a storm, or a great song: Nursing Homes

This post is an entry for our $25,000 scholarship contest. The post was created by James Yarsky and may not always reflect the views of JW Surety Bonds.


Everyone has been in a nursing home that feels alive and is full of music and ideas and relationships. How do we tip and maintain the balance toward these kinds of nursing homes?

One can distinguish a great nursing home from a mediocre nursing home if one simply observes the staff. For many, the staff starts and ends with the certified nursing assistants (“CNA”s). One can maintain that it is the solemn duty of management of a nursing home to hire great CNAs. The best hiring managers are the ones who do their best to check the potential CNAs for enthusiasm, know-how and fearlessness. Does the potential CNA embrace his or her ability to cheerfully and professionally clean up a mess? Does the potential CNA embrace his or her creativity, knowledge and general outlook on life? Can the potential CNA teach or be taught? Do they have a skill that can be shared? These questions are vital as these are the employees who will interact most with the people who live in the nursing home. They have to be extraordinary.

Everything begins and ends with the CNAs because that’s the first employee the clients see in the morning and the last employee they see at night. CNAs may have to feed some of the clients. Imagine what that must feel like for someone who has been self-sufficient all his life. Who is putting the food in his mouth? Is it someone who understands dignity? The best ones do. CNAs see the clients at their most vulnerable times and they need to know how each client feels about those encounters. Some can laugh it off, others need the CNA to be quiet and fulfill his or her duties professionally. Training is regulated and crucial to the success of a CNA but these other factors are just as important (OBRA).

The work is heavy and also wonderful. The CNAs see the clients when they are at their best. The client overcomes an exercise plateau. The client is reading philosophy for the first time. The client is practicing piano after a thirty year hiatus. How does one exude pride and excitement for a client without appearing condescending?

These are deep, important skills.

Yes, nurses are also vital. The place is a NURSING home after all. But who are the people who connect Ms. Johnson the retired librarian with Mr. Jones, the retired editor?

Wisdom can decline with age if we are not careful. Life is supposed to be an accumulation of experiences. What will happen if the experiences are deeper and richer with age?

Ranier Maria Rilke writes…

“I live my life in growing orbits,
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song. (Rilke)”

The truth is we may never know if we are a falcon, or a storm, or a song. And really, according to many mystics and philosophers, it does not matter if we ever know. The magic is in the process. And yes, a great CNA knows and understands that and applies it to her job.

I have heard many clients exclaim things like: “Do you see that CNA over there? She helped me take a bath and then she helped me make a friend. The next day, she found a book for me that I have been looking for ever since I came here, and my eyes are so bad that I couldn’t read it. So she read it to me. This place is my home.”

Can you imagine hearing a testimonial like that from your own parent? What was it like when your mother moved in to the nursing home? Was everyone crying? The heartbreak of realizing that one cannot do the job of taking care of one’s parent and having to trust them to others is shattering. And then, one day you visit. Your mother looks you in the eye and her eyes are sparkling. She is full of life. She offers up a testimonial like the one in the previous paragraph and the two of you collapse in laughter and gratitude.

My friend Sheila once told me that, “You can’t teach the heart. A person either has it or they don’t.” She may be right. But how splendid is it when a person who has it is working with your parent? How grateful are you that you found a home where your mother can explore whether she is a falcon, or a storm, or a song?

Works cited:
Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987 /P.L. 100-203, Approved December 22, 1987 (101 Stat. 1330). Retrieve from http://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/comp2/F100-203.html
Rilke, Ranier Maria. (1992). I Live My Life from The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. New York. Harper Collins.

Sandy is an in-house author and surety bond expert at JW Surety bonds, the largest bond agency in the U.S.

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