Nursing home workers tell their stories: ‘You don’t understand the stress we’re going through’


As many as 1.5 million seniors live in nursing homes across the country. More than 28,000 of those seniors and their caregivers have died from coronavirus; combined with nursing home workers, they make up 35% of all Covid-19 deaths in the US. Beyond other determinants – region, age, frailty, underlying conditions – one factor could have the greatest impact on elders’ mortality: their caretaker’s ability to effectively do their jobs.

While media attention has focused on the service of doctors and nurses in US hospitals, nursing home workers have remained largely invisible, perhaps because the workforce is made up of America’s most neglected – the majority are women, more than one-third are black, almost 20% are immigrants.

I spoke with nursing home workers across the country. Many of those I spoke to shared alarming concerns about their facility’s ability to cope with the pandemic, their working conditions and practices. One told me they had only a single mask for an entire week. Others were wearing trash bags in place of proper PPE. Many said they felt scared – that an often chronic short staffing is so exacerbated by the pandemic that residents are barely getting daily baths. These workers are witnessing the rampant death of residents, some they have known and taken care of for years.

On top of this, every single day they struggle to keep their own families safe. Below, some of them tell us their stories about how they try to do that. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Mary Walker, Brighton, Colorado

Basically, when I get done with work – and this might sound really strange – I have a bathrobe at my front door. I drape my bathrobe over my head and I strip down. I put those clothes in a plastic bin that I have sitting next to the front door, and I wrap myself up, and put my clothes right in the washing machine. Then I walk my happy ass to the shower. Usually when I wake up, I wipe down my common surfaces in the house with hot bleach water. Of course I wash my hands. I’ve supplied everybody in the house with face masks.

I can tell you why I’m a caregiver. I’m 51, I’m divorced, I have no children. I’ve lost my entire family. And when I get to be that old, I’m not going to have someone to care for me, so I’m going to be one of these people one day. I’m going to need someone to take care of me.

I have to share this because he’s one my favorites. [This patient] is such a sweet pea. I went into his room to check on him on my first go-round, and he was just so happy to see me that he grabbed my arm and said, ‘Come on honey, you stay here with me. Can’t you just stay here?’

Julie Moore, West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

People who are not in healthcare say, ‘Well, you signed up for this.’ We didn’t. Every three or four hours 911 is coming to my facility. Then you gotta go home and deal with family. You’ve got to make sure that you’re keeping yourself safe and clean so the kids don’t get sick. Altogether, when you sit down for a moment to yourself, it’s very mentally exhausting.

I have two girls, and I stay away from them as much as I can, but the little one likes to be around mom, of course. I clean the house pretty good, the doorknobs and everything. I wear clothes underneath my scrubs so I can take them off on the porch and put them in a bag. I run them straight to the laundry room and put them in the washer.

I have a childcare issue with my eight-year-old sometimes, and I was told that I’m able to stay home, but I’m still going there to make sure that these residents are OK. And that my fellow employees are getting the things they need and are being properly protected. We’re putting our lives at risk, so I want to make sure that everybody has what they need. Just pray and wash your hands. Hopefully all this will be over soon.

Amy Runkle, Venice, Florida

When I leave work in the morning, I’ll just sit in my car and think: did I do everything right? I run through my entire night just to make sure I’m not bringing anything home to my family.

My partner is at home. She’s diabetic and she’s also a nurse. We leave our shoes outside and we take a shower right away and send the clothes out to the wash. My nephew lives next door. He’s 14 and homeschooling; he comes over often. He has mild autism. My daily concern is I’ll bring it home.

You don’t understand the level of stress we’re going through in this facility. We’re just trying to protect our loved ones and ourselves. Residents can’t see their families and they need attention. The scary part is how long it will go on. There have to be stricter regulations on nursing homes during a time like this. Residents are depending on us. I’ve been doing this for 37 years, it’s my calling. I love it.

Shelly Hughes, Bellingham, Washington

Our rate of pay has not kept up with the cost of living. It is impossible to convince someone to do a job this hard to come and make the same amount of money they can make at Target. We all deserve hazard pay.

My residents that have confusion due to illness or dementia or Alzheimer’s, 99% of the communication we do with them is non-verbal. They have to be able to see your face to know what’s going on, and the masks we’re wearing basically make that impossible.

I lost a few co-workers to fear. Some people have just decided to not work right now. Someone who had been there for a very long time dropped her keys and badge on the boss’s table and said: I’m done.

After my shift I go to the bathroom, and I wash my hands and my arms really, really well. We don’t have a shower at work, which would be ideal. I come home and I strip down the second I walk through the door, and my shoes stay by the door. Everything goes into the wash. I scrub myself very good and make sure I wash my hair.

Generally, people don’t pay attention to long-term care because they don’t ever have to think about it until somebody in their life has gone into it. I hope that more attention is paid to nursing homes after this.

Anne Mercie Pierre Blot, Miami, Florida

I have a seven-year-old. There’s no school, so he’s at home with his dad. We have a patio, so every day he plays on the patio. We wash hands. I give him vitamin C, tea. That’s the way we take care of ourselves. I don’t go in the street if I don’t need to. I stay home in my little house. Here I feel like I’m safe.

You don’t really hear what’s going on with [nursing home] employees. We are facing challenges like every other healthcare worker. They don’t really care about us. We have nurses that are dying from the Covid-19 in the nursing homes, but you don’t hear that in the news media. We don’t have enough staff, but it’s not because of Covid-19. We were short-staffed before. It makes it worse now, because nobody wants to come work in the facilities.

[The residents] feel lonely, because you always want to see your loved ones. There’s families who used to come every day. Some would come two times a day if they’re not working. And even though they call, it’s not the same. When residents don’t see their family, they feel like something happened to them, so you have to play that role too. You step in and say: hey, your daughter is OK, this is why you don’t see her. But soon you’ll see them again.

Some will trust you and some will not. They say: why do I have to stay in here, why can’t I go outside? Why can’t I go take some sun? Why? It’s stressful, not only for us but for them too. And you see them declining, declining, declining.

America faces an epic choice …

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