I entered the CNA profession because I wanted to do important and meaningful work, the kind that really makes a difference in someone’s life. I didn’t want to sell clothing or sit in front of a computer, I wanted to interact with people all day long and make their lives a little happier.

I finished the CNA course with high hopes and got my first job pretty quickly (thankfully). But once I started working, I realized the residents barely knew I was there. They didn’t smile at me and sometimes didn’t even look me in the eye. I wasn’t sure they were registering my existence, let alone enjoying my presence.

I asked experienced CNAs whether they felt the same and they said they knew they were making a big difference in their patient’s lives. One CNA, Chantelle, said, “It’s all about compassion. You gotta show them you care.” I thought about this statement a lot, and I watched Chantelle and her friends interact with patients until I came up with these 5 guidelines for showing that you care:

Look Them in the Eye

Why should patients look at me if I am not looking at them? I learned to look them in the eye when speaking to them or even while assisting them (unless I need to be looking at what I am doing). Once residents saw me looking at them they looked back and suddenly I could see into their eyes – and into their souls.

Call Them by Name

I admit it. I don’t remember every patient’s name. But a quick glance at the clipboard hanging off the bed reminds me, so I can easily say, “Mrs. Adams, it’s time for your breakfast.” Everyone wants to be called by name, and it’s especially important in a nursing facility which can seem impersonal and unfriendly.

Speak Gently

I’m rushed, I’m busy, I might be hungry or cranky. But I know that I can’t take any of that out on the patients. I keep my voice gentle and quiet – or as quiet as I can be and still be heard. My patients listen and cooperate when I speak in a way that shows my compassion. If I’m brusque or loud, they are much more likely to tune me out.

Smile with Your Eyes

CNA training emphasized the importance of smiling, but it wasn’t until I started working that I realized that there are different ways to smile. On a hard day, my instinct is to force a smile, but if I’m not actually cheerful, the residents can see it in my eyes. If I force myself to think of something positive and give my patients my all, they respond to my smile with one of their own.

Tell Them about Yourself

I’m a private person by nature and I don’t like to share details of my life with everyone. But residents of a nursing facility spend a lot of time alone and they relish the time they have with me, even if it’s just a few minutes. So I volunteer small tidbits of information, like “I went to the movies yesterday. What’s your favorite movie?” or “Guess what? Today is my birthday.” My patients love these comments and those who can will often share details in return. They may report what they did yesterday or tell me a story from 50 years ago. All they want in return is to be listened to.

I’ve only been a CNA for two years now, so I’m sure there’s still more to learn. What are your tricks for making a difference in your patients’ lives?