Karl Andrew Pillemer, a Cornell University Gerontologist, is the founder and consulting editor of Nursing Assistant Monthly
Long-term care facilities have been under fire due to the COVID-19 crisis. Over a third of all pandemic deaths were caused by the pandemic. In some states, as high as two-thirds to half of all deaths were in nursing homes. Staff lives were more stressful and disrupted than in any other situation. Long-term care workers provided all social contact for residents, even after the end of their lives, because of the lockdowns. Nursing home workers had the highest COVID-19 deaths rates of any profession. Staff were concerned about their health. Staff like Denny Darby are an example of self-sacrifice and heroism. His supervisor said that Denny Darby was a beloved and dedicated Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). He died from doing what he loved. We need to recognize the vital role CNAs play within long-term care communities and to celebrate their contributions as pandemic heroes.
Who are the CNAs
CNAs work in assisted living and nursing homes. Although their job is to assist residents with daily activities, it is not their primary responsibility. As we will see, they do much more. CNA jobs do not require a high-school diploma or previous experience working with older persons. CNAs need to be trained properly in order to succeed. Federal law requires CNAs to complete 75 hours of training. However, many states and long-term caregivers have increased that requirement. CNAs need to continue education, such as the Nursing Assistant Monthly program. This program provides high-quality, current information on caregiving topics, and meets certification requirements.
CNAs are the key to quality care
CNAs have seen a dramatic shift in their role over the past decade. CNAs are now recognized as primary caregivers in nursing homes, not as nurses’ assistants. CNAs are responsible for the residents’ daily care and quality-of-life. CNAs are the people who know each resident’s wishes, hopes and fears. CNAs are often the first ones to notice subtle changes in mood, behavior and appetite. This could indicate the need for treatment or tests by other members.
CNAs can be more than skilled and knowledgeable caregivers. CNAs can also be a friend, companion, and ally for residents. Their tools are empathy, patience, and kindness. No matter how fancy or innovative the equipment or the miracle medicines, the quality of a resident’s life is as important as the loving care they provide every day. CNAs are often motivated by the opportunity to alleviate suffering and improve quality of life for older people, despite the low wages and difficult work conditions. One CNA stated, “I believe that I’m working my own way to heaven just by doing what I do.” CNA has been my job for almost ten years. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. CNAs are the most touching job.
What the Pandemic Taught Us
CNAs are the “unsung hero” of long-term care. CNAs’ role in fighting the pandemic’s effects upon the most vulnerable Americans is a testament to the fact that we can’t wait to recognize their caring abilities and upgrade their jobs.
Improved training is one of the key components to such recognition. There are many areas that need to be improved, such as knowledge about infection control in long-term care settings. CNAs need to be able to do their jobs well and reduce turnover in long-term care. CNAs should not be viewed as “unskilled workers”. Research shows that their jobs require extraordinary skills such as emotional intelligence, conflict management, resilience, and the ability to adapt to the inevitable loss of residents. CNAs are key to quality care. The pandemic has shown that CNAs can be trained in innovative and comprehensive ways. They will be the ultimate beneficiaries of the more than 2 million people they serve in long term care settings.
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