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'As care home nurses, we must never forget we are custodians of another life'

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A simple question about a resident’s picture gave Rachel new understanding of her resident’s life and helped her learn how to support his wife and family. 

Rachel Oliver

Rachel Oliver

Rachel Oliver

During a busy shift on a busy day working in a care home, it’s rare that you’re able to take a moment to stop and think about a person’s life, their past, how it shaped them and the impact they had, and still have, on those around them.

Seeing the same people we work with 365 days a year can often mean we assume we know them. The daily visit by family members becomes a day-to-day part of the routine with the cursory “hello”, smile, or joke, all simply familiar exchanges and social pleasantries.

Distracted by the next thing to do we often miss opportunities to learn from each other and from family members, reflect on what we do and take a moment to think about how the lives of those who visit us unfold beyond our four walls.

One day, I found this routine changed.

”We often miss opportunities to learn from each other and from family members”

On entering the room of one of our residents who lives with dementia and who has been in the home for six years, I noticed a photo on the wall. His wife was with him. She visits every day as she has for six years, a routine of 11.30am until 4pm where she’d help give him his lunch, sit and listen to music and spend time with her husband. The photo started a conversation about loss and love, change and commitment.

Our resident had been diagnosed 15 years ago, and the way the couple has adapted and changed since then is remarkable. No marriage is without its challenges over the years, the couple has three adult children, one living abroad, and their two sons felt unable to visit as they could not accept their father’s ‘distress’.

”The way the couple has adapted and changed since his diagnosis is remarkable”

His wife, a woman who is always cheerful, positive and talkative, opened up about their life and for the first time in front of me cried, recalling her loss not only of the man she married but of their plans for retirement, for adventure and freedom.

Sharing an intimate moment of someone letting go, sharing their loss and their vulnerability, makes you realise the privilege of the relationship we have not only with those directly in our care, but also with those who care and love them.

Even after all these years the rawness of the emotion, the stoic face arriving daily to support her husband and the assumption I made of her acceptance of her situation is exposed, laid bare and shared. It’s what makes nursing special.

”When you work in care home, you are caring for more than one person - you are caring for a family”

The realisation hit me that day that when you work in care home, you are caring for more than one person - you are caring for a family.

Care home nursing is no less busy than a hospital ward but the longevity of relationships provides an opportunity to build trust in a way that benefits us all.

For me, this was a moment of reflection of what is unique about my role as a nurse. For someone to be able to let go of the facade of coping, acceptance of their situation without blame and loss of control of a life planned, was an incredible moment of learning about her but also about me.

The conversation helped me understand her and her husband in a different way. We have built a trust which helps in my greater understanding of him, his needs and his personality, as he is unable to tell me.

I have the utmost respect and admiration not only for our resident’s wife’s devotion year-on-year, but of all those we care for and their families. Trusting us to do what’s right, to do what’s needed and to do it well day-in day-out takes courage. Letting go and losing some of the control, role and purpose in their lives is an immense transition. But in doing that they give us a unique glimpse into their lives and we all have to respect and acknowledge that.

We are left as custodians of another life and it doesn’t get more privileged than that.

Rachel Oliver, Berwick Grange Nursing Home, Harrogate


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