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  • Kerry Nagel

"But I'm not trained to be a caregiver"

About six years ago, I went back to Minnesota to help my siblings care for my Mom. It was an intentional year...12 months of focus on family. That was the year Dementia entered my mindscape. Until then, I had been in the Hospitality industry. That seems like a leap, but when I really think about it, hotel and restaurant work has set me up nicely for caregiving. And, as it turns out, so has much of my life's other work and interests.


Running a restaurant takes organization. It takes people skills, like motivating staff and reading the body language of guests. It takes layers and layers of thick skin. It takes a willingness to put others at ease and give them a sense of ownership. It takes the skill of anticipating the needs of others before they realize it themselves. I use all of these skills in my work...every day.


Before my Food and Beverage life, I was a college student...an English major with a minor in Biology. Even before the end of Sophomore year, I realized I would never get a job that would utilize that combination. But I loved language, and I loved the natural world, so I did it anyway. College was never about a job for me...I just liked school. English was a pool of words that I could dive into. I am a slow reader, but I so love words and language and using words in language and everything about words and language. You get my point. For many people living with Dementia, language thins, falls away, degrades into mush. Loving language gives me the curiosity to deconstruct it and study it, which makes my work engaging.


My Junior year was, quite by happenstance, spent in Japan. More words, more language, but now with so many hurdles and gaffs. Did I just ask someone how old he was, or how much he costs? Why is he smiling like that? And that whole deal about being the one that never really fit in...where should I file that feeling? How to communicate? By the time I got home one year later, I realized that I had had so few deep conversations during that year that I was actually starved for it. Fitting in when you know your relevance is waning is difficult for people with Dementia. And knowing that you are not always understood can deflate your confidence. There are many ways to communicate. A caregiver's challenge is to find them.


Fast forward to this decade. I have learned to walk side by side with a 130 pound dog. There were years of training, watching The Dog Whisperer talk about energy and about balance. Years of learning how my energy effects my dog, and that he deserves me at my best. Years of learning to combine my yoga practice with the balancing work I would need with this power-breed. Energy awareness is key to Dementia work. Most people with Dementia can read another's energy. It may be the only way they can come to know us. We all choose our "tribe" by the energy each person gives us. People with Dementia are no different.


And what of that yoga practice? Yoga taught me how to breathe. How to stand in confidence. How to calm myself when panic is setting in. How to sit in silence. How to listen to my body...and how to breathe some more. I do not go to work without first spending time on my yoga mat. It may be the most powerful tool in my toolbox. I am no good to anyone if I am not balanced, mind-body-spirit.


Here's the thing about Dementia work. It is holistic. It comes from the gut, and requires ALL of yourself to show up. All of your education, life experience, collective fears and loves, calming and self care practices, health scares and religious beliefs, they ALL come into play. You show up in your entirety for people with dementia. It takes that kind of gut work. Training helps, of course. But what will ultimately get you through the day is that long list of weird, disconnected "stuff" that your mind and body knows. You have been collecting the tools and skills for this job your entire life. You got this.


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KERRY NAGEL, CNA, CDP

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