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What Makes Us Tick

As I got off the phone with my mom last week I made a mental note to let the nursing agency providing her with round-the clock home nursing support know about the names of two aides – one a favorite and one who was not to return.  Driving on my way to catch the train for work, I repeated these names over and over in my head so they stuck and didn’t get crowded out by the bullet points I needed to convey on my upcoming conference call or by the other names filling my brain of my kids’ new camp friends and counselors and of various team members regarding upcoming mid-year reviews.  ‘Christina, Christina, Christina’ I repeated out loud so I didn’t forget the nurse my mom was so very pleased with.  

Keeping Mom happy with her aides has become one of my sister’s and my most important jobs over the last 3 months.  With the continued march of her Parkinson’s disease and its gradual decay of both her mental capacity and physical stability, it’s hard to tell which has hit harder: the fall-out from 3 surgeries in the last 3 months or her loss of independent decision making.  From physical therapy appointment timing to who she eats with, to the medicines she takes, her ability to make a single decision seems to narrow by the week.  So having a say on who is there to help her with what the healthcare system neatly refers to as ‘activities of daily living’ – who you want to see you as you go to the bathroom, as you’re unsteady getting up from the chair, admitting you need some help getting ready to brush your teeth – matters.  Especially when she had been living on her own until 3 months ago – a 24 hour ‘companion’ who she didn’t get to select was a big, and often unwelcome, deal.

After spending an afternoon with my mom – a combination of watching her nap, situating her in wheelchair for a walk outside, ordering and eating dinner, taking medications and conversations repeated a few times throughout my visit, I found myself after 4 hours wondering when the nighttime aide would arrive and thinking to myself that it was an awfully good thing I’d never signed up to be a nurse.  Despite the slow pace of the afternoon, I was drained and edgy and focused inwardly rather than primarily on my mom’s needs.  I have no good excuse for this since I don’t see her regularly as she and I live across the country from each other.  As I sat in the chair silently, the door opened and in walked Christina, my mom’s favored aide.  And instantly, I saw why.

She came in with a big bright smile, introduced herself and quickly settled her attention on my mom.  She asked how her day was, how happy she must have been that I was there, asked her how many steps she’d taken at PT, while sitting next to mom, looking right into her eyes and touching her arm.  And my mom visibly brightened at the sight of her. 

Once my mom was in the bathroom, I asked Christina how long she’d been doing this work.  Across 2 rehab facilities and 2 hospital visits, I’ve met a variety of people whose role is largely care-taking – and I’m amazed by those like Christina who so clearly have a passion for it.  To me, it’s boring, unsatisfying, and success is awfully hard to gauge.  But for the Christinas of the world, they delight in making small progress with those they care for – it’s the eye lock, the smile, the sense of trust they seem to be able to feel.  Christina shared that she has 8 kids – some in their early 20s, one of whom she raised but isn’t hers biologically, and now she’s ‘started again’ with 3 kids aged 2-5.  15 years ago she realized that her life was about taking care of people – and she was good at it – so she pursued a career where she could do just that. 

To say she’s good at it seems an understatement.  She had spent the entire day with her kids and came in with more positive energy than many of us can muster on a weekend morning.  She got energy from being with my mom instead of it sucking the energy from her.  And to put a really fine point on it – the interactions are largely about her talking, my mom listening and occasionally responding, reading the newspaper to her when of interest, and doing her best to elicit a smile or the rare laugh.  As I left, I remained baffled at how that can be satisfying.

The experience with Christina reminded me of a discussion I’d had with a recent graduate about the power of tools like StrengthsFinder in considering career options.  I’ve found it a useful starting point to identify what each of us uniquely does well – and when we add to that what we love to do in life, what gives us purpose, it can be a powerful combination to find work that gives us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.  Reading about the current level of employee engagement at work (or lack thereof), it strikes me that tools like these are that much more important to find work that not only aligns with our skills and interests but is also work that has meaning for us.  It can be tempting to reach for the glamorous job or hot company but it takes more courage and self-awareness to find work that fits with who we are and what makes us tick.  And I couldn’t be happier that Christina had that invaluable self-awareness.

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