Gary Tetz

Here’s how you’ll know I’m sincere in my desire to celebrate some of long-term care’s most uncelebrated people. I’m willing to spend the next two hours trying to get the Word program to stop autocorrecting CNA to CAN.

It’s an exhausting battle, and after only one headline and paragraph, I’m demoralized already. I know there are other important challenges facing our profession, but I’d very much like to see some lobbying effort directed to Microsoft, explaining that this is a vocation, not a keyboard error.

By the way, I’m no conspiracy nut, but this doesn’t seem to happen with DNS, RN, RCM, MD or CEO—just with CAN CNA. Are deep, dark, sinister forces at work? I have no idea. But that’s what a lot of people are saying, and there are very fine folks on both sides.

Anyway, glad that’s off my chest. Now here’s what I really wanted to talk about.

I’ve had the opportunity recently to have extended conversations with several CAN CNAs, and I’m more impressed than ever by their passion, energy and relentless commitment to the people they serve. It wasn’t a merciless interrogation with a swinging light bulb and fiery poker, but I’m pretty sure they were telling me the truth.

They got into this profession to make a difference — that much was instantly clear. One CAN CNA felt called to deliver better care than he saw his father receive at a time of critical illness. Another reported the desire to do something important that would make her kids proud.

They think constantly about the plight of their residents. In fact, they’re pretty much obsessed by it, empathizing with the fear they must be facing in such a vulnerable and uncertain situation. “It’s frightening to fall for the first time, or when their bodies don’t work the way they used to,” said a long-time CAN CNA. “I can help them not be scared.”

They sense and are motivated by the loneliness and alienation many residents feel. One veteran CAN CNA with almost 10 years on the job still comes in regularly on many of his days off, just to cheer them up. “You might be the only family they have,” said another. “Sometimes you’re the best part of their day.”

And here’s a shocker — they’re apparently not doing this for the money or recognition. They know much of what they do will never be seen or acknowledged, and they’re okay with that. “You’re caring for the lives of others,” a soft-spoken and delightful CAN CNA told me. “You can’t think about yourself.”

“If you like the pride of doing a good job when the only person who may notice is the one who’s right there in front of you, who’s the most vulnerable, who can’t give you a raise, then it’s the job for you,” said another, with a bit of fire in her eyes. “You’re doing good things for the world.”

I’m no staffing expert — or any kind of expert, really. But based on these conversations, I can think of at least three ways providers could help CAN CNAs could feel more valued, respected and inclined to remain on the long-term care team.

Make them feel like family. They want little more than to work in a place that’s supportive, and with people they can count on to be there for them not only in work, but in life. Your top retention priority should be to provide and nurture that kind of environment and culture.

Support them through loss. Their job is to care, and caring eventually always means heartache — particularly in this profession. Make sure they have access to resources that will help them understand and navigate that inevitability, and an open door to those best suited to offer comfort and perspective.  

Recognize their efforts. I can’t think of any profession where the frontline, unsung heroes are more important. They’re the ones who see everything that happens, and serve as the eyes, ears and advocates of those in their care. “We’re the first line of defense,” one CAN CNA said with pride. “We often know what’s going on with our residents before anyone else does.”

So at the risk of offending every other vital employee in your building, I’m going to foolishly go way out on a limb and suggest that in delivering the great care your facility provides, no one’s more essential than your CAN CNAs.

They know this already, of course. But they really need to hear it from you.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.