As the United States population continues to age, the need for people capable of working in assisted living facilities will likely accelerate.
Staff members of Greenridge Estates, a Lake Oswego assisted living facility that houses about 40 residents and has a similar number of staff members, find some challenges in their line of work but also great purpose in helping the elderly through the latter stages of life.
"They're (staff) capable, willing and compassionate and some will stay after their hours to assist a resident in need," office manager Sharon Tonack said.
While attending Lake Oswego High School in the early 2000s, Zack Longfellow visited his ailing grandmother at Greenridge Estates almost everyday after school. Longfellow's grandmother stayed at the facility for about three years before passing away. Then, after the Great Recession foiled his plans of becoming an English teacher, Longfellow found work at a familiar place.
"I have an attachment because my grandma lived here and I can still visit her old room and the lady that's living in there now was an old neighbor of mine so I know her," he said.
As a dietary staff member, Longfellow works with the chefs to make meals that bend to residents' culinary restrictions and has a binder he constantly updates that includes that information. He also checks food deliveries before they go to residents and greets new residents when they first settle into Greenridge.
"They're hard to please but for the most part most of them are pretty satisfied with the food," Longfellow said. "The goal is to keep them happy."
Longfellow enjoys the job because he's on his feet all the time and gets to interact with residents.
"They're always calling my name (in the dining room). I think it's because I'm here the most and I'm always running around," Longfellow said. "And there's only a cook in the mornings and then me. So the cook is doing that and then I'm doing everything else as they start coming in for breakfast."
Every once in awhile, Longfellow has to perform a heimlich maneuver on a residents and has saved a few of their lives.
"Sometimes the residents are really big and so it's really hard," Longfellow said. "What scares me is the 80 pound ladies that are just so fragile. My biggest fear is that I'm going to crush their ribs. You have to be really gentle, but you have to get whatever is in there out."
Longfellow likely has many decades before he will need assisted living. But when he does, he won't have to look far to find a suitable option.
"I plan on working here until I move in when I'm older," he said.
Erika Medina was addled with depression and anxiety when she accepted a position as a caregiver at Greenridge Estates more than a year and a half ago. But she says helping and interacting with senior citizens has lifted her spirits and given her a new perspective on life.
"When I was younger I always thought elderly people are grumpy and they're not," she said. "They always try to have a good vibe. They're always smiling and even if they're in pain they try to give their best."
As a caregiver and medical aid, Medina helps residents get dressed every morning, get ready for bed at night, go to the bathroom and take the right medication. She also organizes their room and does their laundry, among other tasks.
More than anything, she says her job requires compassion, patience and endurance.
"It's not like you're sitting. You're always doing something. You have to be really active," she said.
Medina says the most challenging component of the job is saying goodbye to lonely residents after she's finished assisting them.
"That's why I feel like sometimes they want us in there because they feel lonely," she said. "Sometimes they just want that companionship."
Still, she recommends the job: "You can uplift yourself and obviously the residents you are helping. Caregiving is like taking care of your own child. It's fun. And it could be a little challenging at first if someone wasn't used to it. You get used to it."
Sharon Tonack isn't your typical office manager. Tonack and her husband developed Greenridge Estates nearly 50 years ago and helped guide its transformation from a hospital to a nursery and then to an assisted living facility in 1994. Now, Tonack's grandchildren own the facility.
"I work for my two grandsons. That's the frosting on the cake," she said.
Tonack pours coffee in the dining room every morning and then interacts with residents. An elderly woman herself, she can relate to many of their concerns and says residents confide in her for that reason.
"Concerns in how you feel: 'What am I doing here? How long am I going to be here?' Some of them have family issues. They don't come to see them. And I have some of those same issues," she said. "We don't know what tomorrow is going to bring and if they're not feeling well on a particular day I try to give them comfort and compassion."
Tonack said the facility includes residents from nationalities ranging from Germany to Kenya and Korea but that many of the residents are local to Lake Oswego.
"We have a very good reputation in the community," Tonack said. "I can't put a number on it but I would say a lot of our residents are from the area or their family lives in the area and they want their family close. We get a lot of local people here. The residents have come here from larger corporations and they like it here better. It's more homey."
Sherri Gleich is the lone registered nurse at Greenridge Estates. In that position, she performs resident assessments, goes through doctor's orders and sometimes helps guide them through hospice care.
"Any time somebody gets a bruise or a scrape it has to be looked at by me to see if anything needs to be done (and I) talk to the doctor to see if there are any concerns as far as vital signs," Gleich said.
Occasionally, Gleich will watch someone pass away and she takes the unexpected and expected deaths equally hard.
"After you've been through it a few times you know what to do but I don't think the feelings ever get easier. It's never easy to see somebody die in whatever capacity," she said.
Gleich wanted to go into geriatrics in part because of the close relationship she had with her grandparents growing up. And she says Greenridge Estates reminds her of home.
"It's important to be heard and to feel like you have what you want and what you need. I think sometimes we maybe forget that especially when it comes to this generation," Gleich said. "That's the thing that I love about this job is I get to help them have those things."
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