By Leslie Pedtke, Administrator, Aviston (IL) Countryside Manor

Dr. Richard Carlson, who holds a doctorate degree in psychology and is an accomplished author, has said that nothing builds perspective more than developing compassion for others. And compassion, he said, comes from “the willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to take the focus off yourself and to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s predicament.”

That’s precisely what a handful of employees of Aviston Countrywide Manor recently did as part of the nursing home’s “Through the Looking Glass” project.

Facility leaders presented the project as a contest, open to all employees, in which the participants would stay at the nursing home as residents. They would sleep in the same rooms, eat the same foods and endure simulated physical and mental challenges similar to what nursing home residents endure.

Whoever stayed the longest would win a $500 prize.

Four employees signed up for the challenge: certified nurse’s aides Leah Schmit and Kat McCrory, housekeeper Darlene Huelsmann, and Chris Ranz, a CNA who is also a nursing student.

While the contestants could not leave the nursing home during their stay, they could bring their laptop computers and cell phones. They all brought their own pillows and blankets, but that did little to ease their inevitable insecurities that come with losing the home life and multiple freedoms they were accustomed to.

Upon being admitted as Countryside Manor residents, the participating staff members were each required to draw a random diagnosis to contend with.

Kat had congestive heart failure and was required to be on oxygen at all times. Chris was a recent stroke victim and had partial left-side paralysis simulated by wearing a weighted sling. Darlene also had a diagnosis of stroke with left-side weakness. Leah had congestive heart failure with fluid accumulation in her legs, which was simulated by wearing weights on both ankles and support hose.

Each participant shared a room with a real nursing home resident, and throughout their stay, they were required to draw slips of paper with different challenges.

For instance, in her first challenge, Kat was told she had been choking on fluids and was required to drink only liquids thickened to the consistency of honey for the day. Leah and Chris both were faced with the problem of incontinent bowel, which was simulated by laying in chocolate pudding. In one challenge, Darlene endured incontinent urine with no nurse’s call button in reach.

There were many challenges to test their endurance and enhance their perspective of resident life, such as wearing vision-impaired goggles while taking part in bingo and other activities.

During one challenge in which she was forced to wear weights for a lengthy period of time, Darlene admitted she was almost in tears.

“It was very limiting,” she said. “I wanted to quit, but I thought, ‘Well, they (the residents) can’t quit, so I’m going to stick it out.’”

Toward the end of her stay, she observed, “I miss my home, I miss my bed, I miss my freedom. I miss having energy to do things, and I lost a lot of that.”

Kat said she found that she was often overcome by a sense of loneliness.

“When you’re confined to your bed or a wheelchair, it feels like you’re basically by yourself and trying to find something to do,” she said.

In the end, Kat won by living as a nursing home resident for eight days. (Four was the minimum.)

Above all, Chris said, he learned that it’s very important for staff members to develop relationships with the residents.

“After working here awhile, you know pretty much everyone in the building, but you don’t always take the time to talk to them and to get to know them — what they like and don’t like, sharing some of their hardships and concerns,” he said. “So now, as a resident, I can talk to another resident for a full hour or an hour and a half— really, really get to know them and help them out. It’s obvious that if you know them better, you can better care for them.”

Kat, who normally works the midnight shift, was glad to have the opportunity to witness some of the other shifts at work and to get to know the residents during the day while they’re awake.

“I’m going to try to be a little less rushed in my job,” she said.

Since the challenge ended, the four contestants have shared their insight with co-workers. I have shared it with the greater long-term care community, including at several conferences.

“Through the Looking Glass” provided priceless insight, and I am proud of the staff members who took part in the inaugural challenge. We will absolutely do it again.