tray of cafeteria food

When I was 19, a nursing home hired me to work as an aide. There wasn’t much to the interview that I remember, other than I agreed to come to work on time and take the certification course the home provided. In this course, I learned how to lift a frail person out of bed, how to wipe them, how to bathe them if bed-bound; how easily their skin tears, and how to touch so as not to cause a bruise. The head nurse was a short man with a thick north Texas accent and a handlebar mustache who finished the training with the advice to “treat each resident like they’re your grandmama.” The course lasted two weeks and came with the stipulation that I stay for at least six months. Employee turnover was high.

This job, caring for grandparents around the clock, paid $7.25 an hour — above minimum wage, the hiring manager boasted, which at the time in Texas was set at $5.15. This really was a great job, the other aides told me. It was steady work that came with a lunch break and health insurance for your kids, things that were lost on me. I was an anomaly in that job: a teenager, in college, white.

Imagine having to wake, bathe, dress, and hand-feed 10 elderly patients who need total assistance: buttoning shirts, brushing dentures, changing bedsheets for those who will have inevitably soiled the bed in the night. Imagine having to complete it all in an hour or less. It’s an impossible task. Which is why dentures don’t get brushed, baths don’t get offered, nightgowns are worn at the breakfast table. Now double it to 20 patients; this is what you have in many facilities across the country.

A decade later, though, my training came in handy. May 2020, the height of the pandemic; my other grandmother, Granny Nawara, lay dying in a hospital bed. My mother had tried to keep Granny Nawara in her own home to care for her there, knowing the moment she went into a nursing facility would be the moment we could no longer sit with her. But it grew to be too much.

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