by Sarah Squires, editor-in-chief, Winona Post
It was 20 years ago on a cool autumn night, and I’d just been called in to work at a nursing home in the suburbs of St. Cloud. They were short staffed, and I was on a call list of people they could reach out to to see if I could help out. It was my first overnight on an unfamiliar wing, so I stuck close to the aides who knew the residents. Even with me coming in, we were down a person and we had to hustle, unlikely to get a break before the sun came up. As we worked our way down the corridor doing rounds, one of my coworkers said she could tell one of the residents was near death. You could hear fluid in his lungs rattle as he strained to breathe, even from the hallway. “Can we call his family?” I asked. They won’t make it in time, the veteran aides told me. They live across the country.
I had never been with a resident when they died before, and I didn’t know him, but for the rest of the night, whenever I could spare a moment, I hurried down that hallway. I sat by his bed. I held his hand, shyly in silence at first. Later, after I had spotted a photo of he and his wife on the nightstand, a tiny gold cross pendent around her neck, I prayed with him. I told him it was OK to let go, I told him people he loved were waiting for him in heaven. After my shift ended, I resumed my spot at his bedside, and as the sun peeked across the horizon, the man I’d just met the night before passed away beside me. My shift was over, and they still needed help and asked if I could stay and work a double. I said no. Instead, I filled a basin with warm soapy water and washed his body. I cleaned an electric razor and gave him a shave. I wanted to make sure when his family said goodbye he looked his best.
I was 20 years old.
I was just a kid, but I did the most important work of my life that night. And although I was just a kid, I knew way back then a fact that’s staring Minnesotans in the face today: The state’s long-term care facilities are not properly funded. Being underfunded means that staffing levels are not adequate, and it means that one of the most important jobs in the world — caring for the elderly people we love — is all that much harder. Financial support for nursing homes was insufficient before this pandemic, and now we’re finding that our care facilities, already stretched too far, are ill equipped to handle the added stress and work that comes with handling infectious disease control during a COVID outbreak.
It is heartbreaking. Reading Chris Rogers’ reporting on the way that the health care professionals have grappled with the outbreak at Sauer broke my heart, but it also made me angry. I’m angry about the way the state of Minnesota has responded, with reprimands rather than desperately needed assistance. I’m angry that it’s taken this long — hundreds of elderly people have died, hundreds of long-term care workers have gotten sick, been forced to work around the clock — for the state to develop a plan to actually get needed boots on the ground to help them. I’m angry that for decades our system has been asked to do with less and less, that long-term care workers are some of the least paid health care workers in the country, and today, they are expected to bare the brunt of the hardships of this pandemic.
But I am hopeful. I am inspired in knowing that our community has risen up in support of our long-term care facilities in so many ways, despite the awful gaffes we’ve seen at the state level. I am inspired by the workers who are undoubtedly going above and beyond a normal workday to give care and love and support for their residents. And I’m hopeful that something fundamental will change as we recover from COVID-19: that long-term care facilites will be properly supported, staffed, appreciated, and recognized for the important work they do. We have more and more elderly people nearing the time of life when they will need assisted living, and we have got to prepare for that and overhaul the way these facilities are funded and supported. This is not a problem that will subside when we close the chapter on the time of the coronavirus. This is a crisis that has exposed a broken system, one that’s only worked thus far because of the people who give tirelessly as caregivers, the ones who keep working after they’ve punched out on the time clock, who visit the residents they love on their own time because their workdays are too busy to do everything it takes.
I am hopeful that things will change, and I hope you will join me in supporting and lauding the work that people in long-term care do for our loved ones. They deserve and need us to stand together with them.