My father spent the last three weeks of his life in a hospice care facility. It's funny, now reading these narratives written by Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), that I can't picture him without Gloria, the CNA who worked the 7-3 shift, floating quietly in and out of his room, tending to him, tending to us, speaking quietly to Dad even when he was no longer conscious, offering us conversation, often her affectionate observations of Dad and curiosity about his life, sometimes about life on the "outside," a kind of respite from total attention on Dad and our grieving. I remember the smell of the lotion she rubbed on his body. I remember no other caregivers in his room; there obviously were, but I can't picture them now, only Gloria. We never spoke directly to the medical director of the hospice. He was a phantom, rounding at 5 or 6 a.m.; we came to believe he did so to avoid speaking to families.
Those three weeks led to my conceptions about CNAs—the nature of the work they do, the kinds of people who do such work, the awesome responsibilities involved in such work, and not least, the physical and emotional resiliency of those who undertake such work. My and my family's often recited, "How does she do this every day?" was answered time and again in the narratives written by CNAs in this issue of the journal.
But before moving forward, I want to make note of how I will refer to the authors of these narratives. The name of one's occupation, the title one uses, and how others refer to your occupation, is obviously meaningful. If the snapshots of CNAs provided in these narratives are somewhat representative, we find those who refer to themselves and their occupation as nursing assistants, nurse assistants, Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), State Licensed Nursing Assistants (SLNA), or simply aides, to name a few. While it is beyond the space offered here, I want to make note of this, recognizing that titles/labels matter, and to acknowledge that status. As CNA Nanci Robinson notes, "most of us are certified . . . I wouldn't call an LPN a PN and leave out she's licensed." Passage of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987 (OBRA 87), required each State to establish State-approved nurse aide training programs and establish requirements for nurse aide competency. Thus, I will refer to all the authors here as Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs). I do wonder how significant of an issue these variations of titles are within the larger nursing assistant culture, and how it may contribute to disparities regarding pay schedules, duties, status, training and other relevant issues among all nursing assistants.
In spite of problems, stressors, and other quality of life issues for CNAs, most of them spoke with pride and meaning regarding what was for many their "life's work," similar to what one might expect to find in other care giving occupations. Some spoke of a "love of the work," its "rewards" and "joys," [End Page 165] and the intense satisfaction of "making a difference" in patients' or residents' lives. These attitudes were not vague abstractions but were grounded throughout the narratives in rich examples of the affirming aspects of their work.
It appears that much of the pleasure comes from what many refer to as the "hands on," "direct care," or "front line" nature of the work—often what other health professionals might view as things they would not want to do. And of course these other professionals—registered nurses, occupational therapists, and physicians—could make the same claim when describing the "hands-on" joys of their work. But the differences, it would seem, are profound between these other caregivers and CNAs. The CNA narratives report fundamentally intimate and often daily relationships with their clients/residents/patients. Danny Reed describes the "delight" he feels "in restoring dignity to every human in need of it regardless of cause," referring to himself as a "participant observer in a caring relationship," not as a "detached clinician." Many spoke directly to the implied readers of their narratives in a kind of "listen...