Being the DNS isn’t for the faint of heart. You navigate the survey process, solve staffing crises, advocate for residents, and so much more. The nurse leader in the nursing home often gives far more than he or she receives. This isn’t one of those stories – a story about what I gave to long-term care; this is a story about what long-term care gave me.
As I sit down to write this, many of the feelings I felt that day, over 12 years ago, come flooding back. My hope is that this story provides a glimpse into how caring for the elderly can significantly impact not only your nursing career but your life. We need strong nurse leaders in this field who are willing to grow, learn, and lead. We need compassionate caring individuals who enjoy working with older adults.
As the DNS, you understand that many people come to you for help. Residents and their family members show up with concerns and requests. One day while I was at my desk getting ready to leave for the day, the son and daughter of a resident arrived at my door. I knew them well. Both of their parents had stayed at our nursing home, and currently, their mother, who was well into her nineties, was actively dying. I knew her life had been full of adventure and love. She had been married to her husband for 72 years. Her children had come to me because they felt their mother had been “actively dying” for days and their father was struggling with sitting by her bedside. Their father was well into his nineties as well, and he had recently been ill. They asked if I could talk with their father and tell him he needed to get some rest. I had no problem with this request. I sat with their father, begged him to take care of himself, and reminded him that his wife wouldn’t want him worn down just so he could be at her side. He wanted to know why, after five days of being told it was “almost time,” that she was still here. I explained that maybe she is hanging on for a reason. Maybe she was waiting to see someone for one last time, or perhaps she was waiting for him to say it was okay for her to go. He left my office, promising to get some rest.
The next day he showed up at my office and asked me if I would be willing to go with him to say goodbye to the love of his life for over 72 years. I was stunned silent. This was not something I felt I could do. I cared for them both deeply, but this was an intimate conversation between him and his wife. I encouraged him to have his children accompany him, but in the end, he insisted he wanted me to go. I excused myself to go talk to his family. I told them that while I was honored, I felt it was their place to go, not mine. They told me they had no problem with me going with their dad; after all, I had been caring for them for years. I just couldn’t do this. I was certain my heart would break, that I would burst into tears. I could do anything but not this. I went to the administrator and told her my dilemma. She smiled, hugged me, and said “You got this! What an honor.” Honor? I thought she was losing her mind.
Several hours later, after avoiding this family, they found me and said, “It’s time.” I entered that room and found it hard to breathe. I thought I would just stand in the back of the room, but the husband of this beautiful lady asked me to sit with him, next to her. Now I couldn’t swallow. He held her hand and told her she had given him the best 72 years of his life and that he wanted 72 more, but he knew that it was time to say goodbye for now but not forever. He gave her permission to move on to the next life, and he and their children would celebrate all the joy she had given them. The next morning, she peacefully passed away.
This encounter is still very visible to me. This was an amazing story about the love that this couple shared. It reminded me of the importance of each day, each interaction, and most importantly - it was a revelation about why I stayed working in long-term care.
Why am I sharing this? I am sharing this because this encounter changed my life and made me realize the joy and incredible life moments you can experience by working in long-term care. It is rare to care for anyone who has been married for this amount of time, but you can and do in long-term care. As in other nursing settings, you may serve the ill for only a brief amount of time, but in long-term care, you get to build relationships that last a whole lot longer and have a true impact. And finally, working in long-term care allows you to give while you learn. Learning about a resident’s history, their struggles, their triumphs, their love, their life, their families, and so much more. I urge you to give it a chance if you are considering a career as a nurse leader in this field. It will change your life. I hope it gives you the most special moments to remember forever.