Gary Tetz

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear. I’m not suggesting long-term care facilities are exactly like the Department of Motor Vehicles. They’re simply not equivalent, though I know many fine people who work on both sides.

But there are definitely similarities. No one wants to go either place, being the main one. Everyone expects the worst, being another. People walk in assuming a horrible future experience and are preemptively poised to complain — loudly and indiscriminately.

For exactly all those reasons and 47 more, I’ve been resisting a required driving-related procedure for approximately three years. But last Friday, the fear of prison finally grew too great and I drove reluctantly to the DMV, slinking toward the front door as if approaching my execution.

Stepping inside, everything was exactly as feared — like I’d entered a Hieronymus Bosch depiction of hell. Acrid smoke rose with the wails of the tormented. Ghastly gargoyles screamed “Next!” A sea of writhing, tortured bodies with upstretched arms begged for just a morsel of mercy and deliverance.

But just when all hope seemed lost, onto that dystopian horrorscape appeared Roberta, a true angel of compassion and force for good. She wandered the room, looking at paperwork and gently herding people into the right lines. She was knowledgeable and clear, funny but firm. She proactively identified and solved problems at the back of the line before they magnified themselves at the counter.

Resistance to her charms was futile, and once she’d established that personal connection, it was very difficult to be angry with her, and by proxy any of her colleagues. Roberta defanged the most savage beast, and calmed our raging emotions. She was a tranquilizer dart of compassion and helpfulness, an alchemist transforming negativity into acceptance and turning frowns upside down.

Sure, the system she worked within was still inefficient and frustrating. The experience still wasn’t fun. I’d still generally prefer Disneyland or the Olive Garden. But at an unwelcome moment with no viable alternatives, she helped us emerge on the other side without weeping or banging our heads on the cinder-block walls — no small achievement given the circumstances.

Every great long-term care facility has that kind of person — or numerous. Someone who understands what people are going through, and what they fear. Someone who won’t take it personally when they lash out. Someone who helps shift the energy in any challenging situation. Someone with the almost magical ability to help residents and families endure the journey through some of life’s most difficult and unavoidable transitions.

Someone like Roberta.

Who is your Roberta? And do you need more? This, of course, is a trick question because you can never have enough of this kind of person walking your hallways and TV lounges.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.