Lynne Dilliard sits on the park with her mask on

Life in Assisted Living | The Helpers Next Door

Jun 3, 2020  | 115

by Emily Blobaum

Lynne Dillard has worked as a CNA at Calvin Community, a senior housing and assisted living facility in Des Moines, for 11 years. As of May 29, 15 individuals in the facility have tested positive for COVID-19. This interview was conducted on May 22 and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Being an essential worker doesn’t just stop at your job. It’s who you are.

I used to work in factories like Monsanto and Heinz. You’d always get laid off and I had small children. You could work a season and then you’d be laid off all winter. I had to work because I didn’t want my kids on state aid. I didn’t want my kids labeled as “welfare kids.” In the summer, I’d work 16 hours almost every day so their school clothes could be like everybody else’s. My kids never knew we were poor. I saved pop cans from work so I could take them to Burger King or to the movies.

I started taking a CNA class in 1985. I kept seeing CNA jobs in the newspaper. I thought, “What the hell is a CNA?” I investigated it. I took a course at a nursing home and got hands-on classes two days a week. I had to pay $80 for the book. I just loved it.

I moved to Des Moines in 1995. I started at Luther Park and worked there for 5 years. Then I wanted something different, so I went to Des Moines General Hospital. I learned so much there and worked there until they closed. Then I was at Broadlawns for 5 or 6 years and then came to Calvin. By that time, for my body, hospital work was coming to an end. I have arthritis in my knees and you had to be able to run to the lab to get blood quickly. I needed to do something for an elderly person.

I like the fact that I can help people be the best they can be that day. I’m helping them for their last days, really. I do anything from organizing closets, helping change their bedsheets, showers, reading their mail. Just daily living things. I could be making more money doing something else, but I like what I’m doing and I’m living comfortably.

Normally, the first thing I do every day is go through the facility with an ice chest and pass fresh ice water to everybody — and see if there’s anything they need help with. I ask how their day is going. I check blood sugars. Sometimes it takes me two hours to pass out the ice water because I do a lot of one-on-ones with people. I’ve been doing a lot of housekeeping tasks lately — they’re just so bummed out. You’ll go in and see newspapers strewn all over or somebody’s lunch tray is still sitting there hours later.

I have to have my temperature taken coming to and leaving from work. We have to wear masks and shields. The residents have to wear them when they come out of their rooms. They’ve adapted; they’re okay with that. What they’re not okay with is not seeing their families.

I’m seeing a lot of minds changing. People’s conditions are worsening — their morale is so low. It’s not about being scared of catching the virus, it’s about not being able to see their family or go outside. They’re struggling. It’s hard watching mental capacity just go away. These people need their family. You can FaceTime them all day long, but they still need their family. Families are delivering all kinds of extra things. More people are getting flowers and cards. Somebody had a birthday in the health center and the family came and drew a big birthday card with colored chalk in the parking lot. The staff brought the person so they could see through the window. Residents get a lot of stuff to let them know that their family is there, but it’s not the same as touching that person. The sun is shining, they see the flowers and the trees blooming and they just want to go outside. They feel like they’re in prison.

When they were still able to go to the dining room, only one person could sit at a square table and two people at a long table. Some didn’t even want to go if they had to sit by themselves. They said, “I might as well sit in front of my TV.” One lady cried when they said they can’t go to the dining room anymore. She asked, “Does this mean we can’t talk to anybody anymore?” Residents were dependent on staff before, but it’s a deeper dependency now. I do a lot of one-on-ones now — that’s why I’ve noticed that mental health is really being damaged. Depression is setting in.

One lady’s son came in every day; they’d play board games every day. Now she says that she doesn’t want to live anymore. I’ve tried to keep her busy. I’ll ask her to walk with me and we go and check the mail.

Right now, I’m taking the place of a family member. I’ve gotten very close with a lot of people. I hug the residents all the time. It’s just my personality. I’m not supposed to hug them anymore with the six feet physical distancing rule, but I do it still.

I had a meltdown on Thursday. I really didn’t get out of bed until Monday when I had to get ready for work again. Just the thought of going back was hard. But I had to rejuvenate because they depend on me. One lady got a calendar and asked when I’d be at work. She put a heart on that day. Is she living for the days that I’m there? She said she looks forward to our talks. We have a lot of spiritual conversations.

I’ve had to learn how to detach. When I clock out at 10 p.m., I have to leave it. When I wake up the next day, I’m thinking, “What can I do today, what extra things do I need to do?” One lady’s shower curtain was a bit too short. She didn’t want to take a shower anymore because the floor would get all wet. The next morning I went right down to Family Dollar and got wire shower hooks that made the curtain longer. She said it was the best shower she’s ever had.

I focus on the positive side of any situation. For me, my positive is being able to get to work and help somebody. I love to help people. I would say I’ve had an impact on thousands of people throughout my time as a CNA. I think about a lot of them — I have an envelope with a lot of their obituaries.

Being an essential worker right now, I think I realized how important my work is and who all is qualified to be under that category. So many people in different walks of life depend on essential workers that were taken for granted before.

I’m thankful that I can give back. It’s rewarding. I’m not afraid [of contracting COVID-19]. I’m not saying that I’m invincible — I do take precautions — but I feel like if I survived being kicked in the chest and left to die [back in 1991] and having open heart surgery, there is a God. So why am I going to let this scare me? And If I don’t go to work, what are the residents going to do?