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What Can The Great Depression Teach Us About Resiliency?

By Julie Helling, BSN, RN, RAC-CT

Everyone has been adversely affected by the events of this year, but none more so than the long-term care residents. We have seen a dramatic decline in resident cognition, increased agitation, and a rise in depression. Our residents are missing their families and friends. They don’t understand why they must quarantine. They forget why their families can’t visit.

Unfortunately, staff members are not doing much better. As part of the administrative team, I have witnessed a rise in absenteeism, increased anxiety amongst the staff, as well as an escalation of short-temperedness. We should be caring and supportive of each other. Oftentimes, we don’t know what other staff members are going through in their private lives. Let’s not forget our staff members have their own families. Dealing with elderly parents, school-aged children, spouses, siblings, and significant others can put a drain on our caring resources.

There have been days where my “caring well” has completely run dry, and there is nothing left over for me. I’m quite sure many of you have been in the same situation; probably a lot more than usual this year. However, we need to find a way to overcome this emotional drought so that we can provide the best care for our residents and each other. 

Thinking about our trials, I am reminded of another time in our nation’s history when we were faced with economic and personal hardship—The Great Depression. Many of our residents were small children during this time. They remember the hard times but often speak of family gatherings and ways of coping with fondness. How did families cope during this time? Are there any lessons we can take away to help us now?

According to an article from History.com,

The Great Depression (1929-1939) was the worst economic downturn in modern history with about a quarter of the U.S. workforce unemployed. The average American family lived by the Depression-era motto: “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.” Women’s magazines and radio shows taught Depression-era homemakers how to stretch their food budget with casseroles and one-pot meals. Potlucks, often organized by churches, became a popular way to share food and a cheap form of social entertainment. Often, people chose to spend time at home. Neighbors got together to play cards, and board games such as Scrabble and Monopoly.

I have talked with some of the elders, and also to my own father (he was born in 1933), about how they and their families coped with such hard times. Many of them have spoken about neighbors helping neighbors, finding joy in nature, using their imagination to invent new ways to play, as well as conserving resources, recycling, and being frugal with money. 

How then can we take the lessons from yesteryear and apply them to today? How do we keep our own “caring well” full enough for our residents, our co-workers, our families, and ourselves?

What our elders, parents, and grandparents did during the Great Depression helped them become “The Greatest Generation.” What if this current COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn, and environmental crisis is our test? Will future generations call us great? Or will we fail in our abilities to not only survive what is happening, but thrive while living it?

I believe we need to take lessons from our elders. I believe we can thrive during this time by getting off the Internet and turning off the news. Go outside and meet your neighbors. Invite your family, close friends, or neighbors over for a socially distanced potluck meal. Spend the evening playing games with your children. Or start an online group game. Take up a new craft or return to one you’ve let slide. Learn to cook. Or make bread. Figure out what “fills your well.” Because when your well is full, you can help others fill theirs. 

These are simple answers. These are simple solutions. But these activities worked for our residents, our parents, and grandparents. They will work for us. Maybe life is telling us we need to slow down. Maybe we are being told to get off our phones and iPads. Maybe we should listen. I truly believe that if we can find that special thing that refills our caring well, we will take better care of our residents, our families, our co-workers, and especially, ourselves. 

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