The chances are good that even the youngest and healthiest person reading this will one day need the help of a nursing assistant.  Now is a good time to take a look at the profession since National Nursing Assistants Week is June 10-17, 2010.

An overview

Nursing assistants come in all shapes and sizes.  They are both male and female.  Their physical appearances are different, but they all have bodies that withstand the punishing nature of the work. 

They do a lot, including showering, feeding, changing and grooming residents and patients.  They take vital signs and do a lot of lifting.  They help people walk and push people around in wheelchairs.  They change bed sheets, straighten rooms and empty bedpans.  They do a lot of documentation of what they see with their residents medically. 

They do a lot of stuff that isn't really in the job description. They arrange the Hallmark cards next to the bed, dial the phone for residents who can't do it themselves and clean out the whiskers that are clogging the blades of the electric razor. 

Nursing assistants work in many different types of facilities: nursing homes, hospitals, and long-term care facilities, to name a few.  In many healthcare facilities, there are literally always nursing assistants on the job. 24 hours a day 365 days a year.  There has to be; they provide some of the most basic and direct care that people need to survive. 

In short, nursing assistants help people who can't completely help themselves.  A nursing assistant can be the functioning arms of a quadriplegic, the eyesight of a person who is blind, the voice of someone who cannot talk. 

Time spent with their residents

Nursing assistants frequently spend more time than anyone with their residentsoften even more time than the residents' own family members.  A nursing assistant typically spends his or her entire shift with just a few residents, whereas a nurse, for instance, typically sees many more.  Therefore, nursing assistants are often able to spot medical problems with their residents before anyone else.  Good nursing assistants watch their residents closely and are valued by doctors and nurses as being the first responders to any medical changes on the floor. 

Nursing assistants don't just work with their patients and residentsthey pretty much live with them, 40 hours a week, sometimes for decadesuntil the patient or resident is discharged or dies.  Want to know if a resident prefers angel food or chocolate cake? What television shows they watch on Tuesday nights?  How many socks they have in their bottom dresser drawer?  Ask the nursing assistant. 

A tough, dirty job

Nursing assistants have a tough, dirty job.  They are often verbally abused by the residents they take care of.  This happens especially in nursing homes, where residents are often angry and no longer willing or able to be polite. 

Nursing assistants have to deal with the most intimate and disgusting bodily functions of their residentsthey change diapers, clean up vomit, etc.  Residents do sudden and shocking things. Nursing assistants get bitliterally.  I've seen residents spit, vomit and defecate on the nursing assistant taking care of themin some cases intentionally and in some notall without warning. 

That kind of stuff pushes your buttons, but a good nursing assistant deals with all of the above without losing their temper and does what is best for their residents at all times. 

A capacity for caring

Nursing assistant work is generally viewed as not being highly-skilled.  In a sense, this is true.  It doesn't take as long to learn how to operate a Hoyer lift as it does to learn a new computer programming language, for example. 

But being a good nursing assistant is more than just a set of skillsit's a gift

A good nursing assistant has a capacity for caring that can't be taught; some people have it, and some people don't.  Nursing assistants have to take care of the immediate physical and medical needs of their residents, of coursethat's what they're paid to dobut good nursing assistants go above and beyond this. 

For instance, a nursing assistant might have a non-ambulatory resident with developmental disabilities who is showered lying down on a gurney and always gets upset when the water hits him.  So, the nursing assistant tries different things and finally discovers that singing to the resident calms him down.  She even figures out what songs he likes best.  Then, she sings to him every shiftfor years. 

She doesn't just sing because it's easier and safer to shower the resident when he's calm.  She doesn't do it because she's being watched for her performance evaluation.  She does it because she's like thatbecause she cares.  

Nursing assistants make sure outfits match for residents who don't have the ability to care about their appearance.  They coax residents to eat who have lost their taste for food.  They remind residents of the dates of their own birthdays. 

A good nursing assistant is a hero.