Darlene Oneal found her calling more than 25 years ago while caring for an elderly woman in her home. Labrenia Parker discovered her career while caring for her brother, who had been shot, and her grandmother as she aged. And Sharay Harper changed her line of work after watching the care her grandfather received before he passed away.

Today, all three are geriatric nursing assistants – or GNAs – at Catholic Charities’ St. Elizabeth Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, providing direct care to residents. It’s a job that involves a range of tasks, including feeding, bathing, dressing, or transporting residents, depending on their needs and abilities.

“Overall, I would say the GNAs are our eyes and ears on the floor,” said Edwina Bell, director of nursing at St. Elizabeth. “They see and hear everything going on with the patient. They are the ones that are the most important to the residents. They’re there all the time.”

Thursday marked the start of the 43rd annual National Nursing Assistant Appreciation Week. On June 20, the Maryland Gerontological Nursing Group honored nursing assistants at St. Elizabeth and Caritas House, Catholic Charities’ assisted living facility for seniors over 62, with a “cheering section” of friends, goody bags, and signs of thanks and support.

“Nursing homes are nothing without nursing assistants, yet the spotlight hardly ever reaches them,” said Aileen Tinney, Catholic Charities’ director of Senior Services.

At St. Elizabeth, GNAs get attached to their patients and learn their preferences – who likes cereal for breakfast, who prefers a bed-bath to a shower, who likes to sleep in late.

“They’re able to deliver without the elders having to ask,” Bell said. “That’s what endears them to so many elders.”

Labrenia Parker became a GNA after caring for her brother

For Parker, who has worked at St. Elizabeth for three years, the interaction with patients is her favorite part of the job.

“They’re fun to be around,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t have loved ones here who can always come to visit them. So, they’re like your family.”

Bell said GNA positions, which require state certification but not as much education or training as other nursing jobs, are “the hardest in the building.” When she interviews candidates for open positions, she tends to ask about how they handle stress, frustration, and a constantly changing set of demands.

“This gives me an idea of how they are going to handle our elders. A lot of them have challenges that make them respond in ways that can be frustrating,” she said, adding that she looks for heartfelt empathy when hiring. “I want [the GNAs] to know that it’s never personal. It’s about what the elders are going through, and you have to know that.”

Oneal, who has always been the caregiver in her family, said challenging residents have never been a concern.

“If you work in the field a long time, you learn to adjust to different types of people. You just have to pray about it and leave it alone,” she said. “There’s no reason to get frustrated. They’re sick, and that could be me. You’ve got to take care of them like they’re your mother or father.”

Sharay Harper transitioned from private security to being a GNA

Patient interactions have become even more important since the COVID-19 pandemic forced St. Elizabeth to stop visits from family and friends, and added to the protocols staff must follow.

But Parker said, “It really hasn’t changed what we do … or how we’ve been caring for them. Residents look forward to seeing us – we’re the only outside people they’re able to see!”

Harper, who previously worked in private security, started at St. Elizabeth in 2017, and is thinking about pursuing further training as a registered nurse.

“I love what I do. I like to make other people happy, especially when they can’t see their families,” she said. “I fell in love with my residents.”