Vital life lessons from the worst job I ever had.
The summer after I graduated high school, I was a fat, lazy, borderline alcoholic slacker with no goals or ambition in life, whose only care in the world was having money for beer and new Xbox games. Since I didn't have much (read: any real-world) experience, the types of jobs available to me were rather limited. As a result, I wound up taking a minimum wage job working as a roustabout at the local nursing home. I mean, how bad could it really be, right?
Well, if you said "super extremely shitty," you sir or madame or trans-sir or trans-madame, would be correct figuratively and literally. Although I had a host of responsibilities -- mopping the floors, dusting windows, emptying trash cans, etc. -- my primary duty was commanding the laundry room ... in the middle of summer ... without an air conditioner. To be a little more blunt: I spent hours rummaging through shit and piss soaked undergarments in a cement room where the temperatures regularly hit the triple digits.
That said, as heinous a job as it was, it at least gave me an opportunity to examine and assess my own humanity. I didn't really pick up on it at the time, but that crappy (once again, literally) summer job ended up teaching me quite a few ugly, and undeniably important, truths - as abysmal as those months at the retirement home may have been, I at least walked away a wiser, worldlier soul. And now, dear readers? I'm going to impart that critical (however distressing) knowledge unto you...
Horrible Truth Number One:
Nobody gives a shit about old people ... even their own families.
Just the core concept behind nursing homes is depressing as all hell; it's a place where irritated, inconvenienced adult children ship their problematic, usually senile moms and dads off to piss and shit on themselves in the company of total strangers until they die completely alone, isolated from all the people they ever loved and cared about. Even with Alzheimer's turning your hippocampus into pulled pork and a potpourri of mind-numbing drugs pumped into your guts on a daily basis, that has to be one of the cruelest, sickest and most disheartening things anyone could possibly imagine.
For all the incessant news coverage afforded to teen suicides, we tend to overlook that the over 65-crowd is actually the most likely demographic to kill themselves. And really, can you blame them? You are basically locked inside a dark, stinky room seven days a week, with your obviously unconcerned and unsympathetic family visiting you once a week (if you are lucky) for a meaningless check-up, primarily out of guilt as opposed to genuine affection.
While it's understandable (although by no means commendable) that nurses just don't care that much about nursing home tenants, the disregard displayed by the tenants' own families is often just bewildering. I remember one woman who used to push herself up against the plexiglass next to the front entrance, cradling a teddy bear, who always told me that, that day, she was finally going to get to see her grandchildren. She would just stare out the window, peering into the parking lot with her eyes twinkling and her mouth agape, almost as if she was awaiting the second coming of Jesus (the faith leader, not the tan guy who did the drywall that summer.) Eventually, she wound up getting kicked out of the facility, because her kids just stopped paying for her room and board. Two days before she was to be transferred to a shitty assisted living rat-hole in the slummiest part of town, she had a heart attack and died; she ended up being buried in a pine box, because none of her relatives felt like footing the bill for a real funeral.
Horrible Truth Number Two:
Old people are racist as fuck, and they just don't care.
Of course, that's not say nursing home tenants themselves can't be all sorts of pricks, assholes and dildos. Seeing as how the nursing home I worked out was populated almost exclusively by aged southerners who spent half their lives in a pre-Civil Rights Movement world, it's probably not all that shocking that, from time to time, I would her a resident spot off the occasional hurtful slur and epithet.
Now, it's not so much that you were hearing these blue-hairs and chrome-domes drop the "n-word" as much as it was how goddamn casual they were about uttering them. I recall this one curmudgeon, who used to roll up his wheelchair next to the nurse's desk and berate them. During one rant, I heard him use the term "nigger" no less that two dozen times, which was extra-funny, since all the nurses working that shift were either Hispanic or Asian.
Of course, since the residents are so old and feeble-minded, the staffers usually just laughed off their hateful rhetoric as the harmless musings of old coots. One of the nurses was an extraordinarily cheery black woman, who took her verbal abuse like a champion pacifist. Despite being called a virtual dictionary of racial slurs (that summer was my introduction to the term "golliwog," among other quaint, antediluvian phrases), she always sweetly replied with "that's OK, honey, I know you really don't mean that," which -- inexplicably -- always seemed to put an end to the bigotry. That is, except for the aforementioned curmudgeon, who always responded, "no, I really do hate you blue gums!" at the top of his lungs.
Horrible Truth Number Three:
Nurses are quite possibly the worst human beings on the planet.
In a lot of ways, nurses are both underpaid and underappreciated. It's not an easy profession, to be sure -- while doctors make their triple digit salaries hooking up people with the pharmaceutical du jour, nurses are the ones really working down in the trenches, forced to do all of the really hard and disgusting jobs, like drawing blood and jamming catheters into gross dude's pee holes... and all for just a third of a physician's paycheck.
That said, nurses can still be some downright terrible human beings, and nothing exemplifies that more than some of the "professionals" I had the pleasure of working with a decade ago. For starters, there was one nurse in particular who was practically Percy Wetmore from "The Green Mile," only in really cheap lipstick and nauseating perfume. She had a habit of mocking patients right in front of their faces, including mimicking the pained muttering of a man with half his jaw missing. She also belittled a 40-something-old patient (yes, invalids under the age of 65 are routinely placed in nursing homes, too) who wound up paralyzed after a suicide attempt. Her response after hearing his heart-wrenching story? "Well, I bet you won't try that again, will you?" Another nurse said some of the most incredibly offensive things you will ever hear. Following the death of a former employee -- who passed away during a gastric bypass operation -- she made the following utterance: "well, she'll finally lose all that weight once she's a skeleton, won't she?" She also had a knack for making fun of her Micronesian colleagues -- she called them "chaw chaws" because of their admittedly nasty betel nut sucking habits -- and even had the audacity to ask a coworker, who was going through chemotherapy, "if she missed her hair yet."
Alas, the big, dark secret of the nursing profession is just how many of them are unabashed drug addicts. Shockingly, a good 90 percent of the nurses at the retirement home were smokers, and quite a few drank while on the job. However, that all pales in comparison to the pill swapping that went on; as in, the nurses would literally steal the high-powered pharmaceuticals from their patients' rooms and either a.) sell them after work, or b.) trade them for other ill-gotten prescription meds with other nurses. Through the grapevine, I heard that some of the nurses were actually involved in some serious pill mill operations -- as in, the kind of shit that gets the ATF called on you. And they weren't the only employees doing some shady, underhanded things, on the clock and off...
Horrible Truth Number Four:
There are NO standards when it comes to who can work at a nursing home.
You may be wondering what the criteria is for a nursing home employee. Obviously, the nurses have to have the prerequisite certifications, but for everybody else? As long as you can turn in an application with semi-legible handwriting, that's usually all you need to get your foot in the door.
At the retirement home I worked at, there was no criminal background check for most positions. As one of the few employers in the area that waived such a consideration, it's probably not all that surprising that the nursing home became a proverbial Noah's Ark for the formerly incarcerated. There were at least three guys in the cleaning crew who had done serious time (we're talking multi-year felony sentences here) and there were even a few folks working in the cafeteria who had violent sexual crimes on their rap sheets. As I come to learn, nursing homes are one of the few evergreen employment opportunities for registered sex offenders, since its pretty much a guarantee that nobody under the age of 18 will ever be on the premises for more than a few hours.
As you'd expect, most of the positions, thankfully, were hands off, meaning folks of the sort were relegated to mechanical positions -- laundry room duties, landscaping, kitchen work, etc. -- that really didn't require much human interaction. Alas, the nursing home gig still afforded plenty of opportunities for criminal mischief; one of my coworkers was busted for stealing TVs out of residential rooms, while another just flat out told me his custodial job was a front so he could, and I quote, "sell rocks from 4:30 to 10 at night."
Horrible Truth Number Five:
Dementia is a fate worse than death itself ... but it does have its upsides.
Dementia is something not a lot of us ever think about. Us, being the young Turks we are, can't really imagine anything happening more than 20 minutes into the future, so it''s only natural that we'd rarely -- if ever -- dwell upon the notion of old age robbing us of our mental faculties.
According to at least one group that may or may not be alarmists trying to garner more money for themselves, dementia is one of the fastest growing diseases in the United States, with national spending on treatment of Alzheimer's and it's similar age-related mental diseases expected to surpass the one trillion a year mark by the midpoint of the century. The correlated loss of brain functions associated with such diseases, another organization tells us, actually makes dementia by proxy one of the nation's leading causes of death already.
Unless you experience it second-hand, day-in and day-out, I don't think you can truly grasp just how horrific Alzheimer's actually is. It's a disease that not only destroys your ability to think -- and thusly, take care of even the most basic of bodily functions any more -- it's also a disease that supposedly entails immense physical and neurological pain. Some of the less-spoke-of after effects of extreme dementia include hallucinations, blindness, deafness and the inability to regulate tactile sensations like heat and cold. Despite what the media depicts, senility isn't a slow dissent into unreality and ignorance, it's actually a never-ending battle against one's own body. I spoke to an Alzheimer's expert recently, and she told me something that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up: that people with extreme dementia actually retain most of their normal mental faculties, like memorization and motor skills, it's just that their physical body is shutting down and completely fucking up how they perceive the world around them. In short? Alzheimer's is the state of your brain living on while your organs are literally dying. Your thoughts, your very consciousness, becomes entrapped in a bag of nonfunctional meat and bones -- in essence, turning those afflicted into what very much could be considered the living dead.
As nightmarish as senility is, however, it does seem to have at least one positive thing going for it. Since everybody around you more or less views you as a human being with the cognizance of a four-year-old, that means its astoundingly easy to get away with some things. Case in point? One of the patients at my nursing home was actually one of the most ingenious criminal minds I have ever met; with everyone around him thinking he was some delusional coot, he used their brazen ignorance to rob the place blind, stealing from his neighbors, nurses and contracted workers. Like some sort of expert pickpocket, he would wait until the nurses went to the bathroom, then he would pilfer through the purses for stray ones and fives. The nurses being the catty, confrontational sorts they were, they all blamed each other for the rash of thefts, not for one second fathoming the idea that one of the residents could be the culprit. One time, he even stole the keys from a guy unloading a vending machine; while the stocker soon sprang to the front desk to make a hectic phone call, the old dude just rolled over to the machine and started yanking out quarters like it was a slot machine.
My last week on the job, I actually asked him about his thieving ways. I just had too many questions -- where did he hide the money, and ultimately, what was he using it for? Since he just sat there silently, I tried to change the subject, asking him if he had any kids. Once again, he sat there, without uttering a single word.
And then, right when I was about to leave his room? He spoke.
"Yeah, I've got a kid. And he's got a kid about your age," he told me. "And like him, you better keep your goddamn mouth shut."