I knew nursing wouldn’t be a glamorous career, but I believed it was a good fit because of my love for people. Unfortuately there was a plan glitch.
I did not include how to cope while caring for difficult people. And there are more difficult people than you think!
Thankfully, I learned how.
But I had no idea that the lesson I learned as a new nurse would not just help me cope while caring for difficult people at my work, but also, later in my life while:
- Caring for my colicky baby (and then my teenagers)
- Caregiving for my ill and aging family members and
- Serving in ministry
Cope While Caring for Difficult People – Nursing
Three years of college training and six months into working as a registered nurse, I realized that I didn’t love all people.
Sure, I could quickly come to love the grateful, the kind, and the appreciative patients. Could I love the gentle-hearted and the soft-spoken ones?
And the smiling, the clean and the good-smelling patients?
How about the dirty, the yelling, or the vulgar-talking people?
Not so much.
Did I love the ones calling me names?
That was a definite no.
Not only did the patients’ behaviors clash with my personality and disposition, but they scared the daylights out of me. They would bring me to tears, or I froze in my steps.
Other times, I would feel offended, angry, taken advantage of, and even resentful. These people hurt my feelings and made me feel incompetent. At that time, I was unaware of the need to know how to manage all of that.
However, a special nurse taught me how to deal with it while we were giving care to none other, than a difficult patient.
A patient that I will never forget.
How I Learned to Cope While Caring for Difficult People
After transferring into a new role of an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse, a woman was admitted with a drug overdose. She was combative, confused, and angry.
She was screaming obscenities and calling people every rude name she knew. Her hands were loosely restrained, but her legs were swinging and kicking at anyone ignorant of her range.
I recognized the stained, ripped clothing, and dirty skin. The clues implying this woman was possibly homeless, or least that she wasn’t living comfortably right now.
But I didn’t recognize the stench that filled the room. It was something so rotten it made my throat burn. I had never smelled that odor before.
We quickly identified the source.
This patient’s groin was covered in layers upon layers of maggots. It was unclear whether it was infection or disease or just filth attracting and feeding those nasty larvae.
But, those things had to go, so her nurse (and my preceptor) prepared to scrub her entire body clean. As my preceptor’s assistant that day, I was also part of this project. So I helped by:
- Holding the patient’s limbs as needed
- Changing bathwater (multiple times)
- Fetching for more linens (again and again)
- Emptying trash liners
For 2 ½ hours, the nurse scrubbed. For 2 ½ hours, I helped. And for 2 ½ hours, the patient screamed and yelled and kicked and spat.
It was one of the most wretched things I had ever witnessed.
At one point when I couldn’t take it any longer, I asked my preceptor, “Why are we doing this to her? She doesn’t even seem to want this. This is awful!”
She told me, “Here’s the way to cope while caring for difficult people and doing difficult care.”
“See life from the patient’s view so you can put their needs first. That way you provide care in a way that is comforting to the patient, not what would be comforting to you.”
Difficult people are less difficult when you help them find true comfort.
She went on to say that there are times when the people we are caring for do not even realize what they need to be comfortable. For some patients, we address the ABC’s (airway, breathing, and circulation) to make them comfortable.
For other patients, pain management, nutrition, physical touch, or verbal encouragement will meet the need. In this case, it was a bath.
(Sometimes it may also require the use of verbal de-escalation techniques, so I’m posting this information as a resource.)
As we continued providing her care I learned, for her, it wasn’t going to be hand holding, prayers or a soft pillow that made a difference.
Or the ‘fluffy’ stuff they teach in nursing school.
To make her comfortable, I had to make the care about her specific needs of today.
I had to meet her where she was.
And today, she needed self-care (hygiene) and rest. So we met the needs that she couldn’t.
We couldn’t change her life. But a bath would definitely make her more comfortable. And being clean would give her dignity.
Later that night, I observed an amazing sight.
She rested. Comfortably.
We didn’t get a smile, a thank you, or even eye contact from this patient. But we did see her vital signs stabilize, her kicking stop, and her body rest.
Working with this patient helped me grow into a better nurse. I learned:
Offensive odors represent suffering.
Following my nose allowed me to provide appropriate comfort measures for:
- Infected wounds
- Gastrointestinal bleeding
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Mental illness
Offensive odors are a symptom, not a root cause. Judging the symptom isn’t helpful to anyone.
We can make a positive difference in someone’s life even when we can’t improve their life situation or change unhealthy, or even dangerous, lifestyle choices.
To advocate for the patient’s well-being does not mean giving approval of their choices.
It is only after courageously loving the patient does a true need become apparent.
And for me, it meant loving the patient as a person created in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27) (NLT).
Loving my difficult patients as a person created in the image of God is how I was able to give respect to my federal prison patient after his stroke, and how I could easily give dignity to my sex worker patient who was dying of AIDS.
Caregiving is a messy job. And while the method of making the person comfortable doesn’t always make them act less difficult, seeing them as a person made in the image of God can change my thoughts and actions. And this almost always helps me cope more effectively.
Caregiving is hard.
But not just for a nurse.
Cope While Caring for Difficult People – Parenting, Family Caregiving, and Serving in Ministry
Almost twenty-seven years later, I remember this patient resting in her bed.
She taught me to embrace the humility of caregiving so I could provide care that would give comfort to the person receiving the care.
I am grateful for his lesson.
Unfortunately, balancing the humility and servanthood of caregiving eventually become an overwhelming struggle for me.
My ability to put others’ needs first bled over into my personal life.
I developed an unhealthy and exhausting lifestyle of putting my own needs last. Eventually, even my personal self-care suffered. I was tired physically, exhausted emotionally and mentally, and unfulfilled spiritually.
God helped me see how to take better care of myself. Not only should I see the patient as a person made in the image of God, I need to see myself that way too.
Loving the people I care for doesn’t mean I stop loving myself. We are both created in the image of God.
Caregivers are not machines. We are people created in the image of God. And we need to take care of ourselves and find ways to be comfortable and manage stress so we can continue to care for the people we love.
Understanding this changed my life, and how I cared for people. But as I said, not just in nursing.
The Lord helped me improve my self-care so I could continue caregiving, and cope while caring for difficult people inside and outside of my work role.
As a Parent
Parenting is a rewarding endeavor. But, while caring for a colicky infant, a 20-minute bath (alone) was what I needed to rest and feel comfortable.
Taking care of myself was what I needed to do to cope and continue to care for my crying and screaming child, day after day, for nine long months.
As a Family Caregiver
Family caregiving, while necessary, is stressful. While coordinating care for my grandmother, I watched my aunt experience extreme stress. I pleaded with my aunt, her in-home caregiver, to take better care of herself.
A live-in caregiver is one of, if not ‘the’ most stressful situations of caregiving. It’s important to lean on friends and talk to your siblings.
Now, while coordinating care long-distance for my aging parents, I encourage my brother to take care of himself as a live-in caregiver.
As a Servant in Ministry
Sometimes serving in ministry is one of the most rewarding acts of caring you can perform.
But it can also be challenging to cope while caring for difficult people who make the same mistakes again and again, who aren’t appreciative or don’t want to turn away from destructive, and even dangerous lifestyles. Sometimes this negative worldview can make you feel like you are not making any difference.
But, if you take some time to provide regular self-care, you have a greater ability to realign your perspective and realize you are making a difference.
In closing, please remember the patient in my story above. Remember how important something as simple as a bath was for her to rest comfortably.
Because these simple things are important during caregiving too. These are the things that can help you cope while caring for your children or parents.
Things like quiet time – even 5 minutes. Getting outside for 20-30 minutes. And if you can, get out for an hour or two as often as possible.
Remember, rest and self-care will bring comfort to you, the caregiver, too. And, remember to see your patient, and yourself, as a person made in the image of God.
Learn how to use your faith to find the time and motivation to take better care of yourself and meet your self-care goals!
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