My mum has worked as a dementia care worker for over 18 years now and whilst I’ve always been aware of what a demanding job she has, it’s only been in the last few weeks during the COVID-19 lockdown that I’ve truly started to realise how difficult, how scary, but equally how rewarding her job really is.
I know, I know, this post is a huge jump in topic from my usual baking and recipe type post but I started to think about the stories my Mum was telling me and I realised that actually, I’d really like to tell more people about it because it takes a certain type of person to be able to look after others in this way and my Mum, along with many others, deserve so much more recognition for what they do. Over the last few weeks, I’ve listened to her on the telephone with a lump in my throat. I’m worried for her and all the other people in similar jobs and I feel helpless. I guess all we can do is be there to listen, be there to support and remind them what an amazing job they’re doing and if anything, it reminds me I need to check in on my Mum more often than I already do.
For the first 14 years of my Mum’s career as a care worker she worked in council-run homes for elderly patients where a high ratio of residents suffered from mental illness related diseases and dementia, and for the last two years in a charity-run home rated as ‘outstanding’ by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). I have often seen the cuts, bruises and marks on my Mum’s arms from when a scared or confused resident has attacked her. I remember being shocked at some of the stories whilst my Mum would stay calm and explain what happened as if it was perfectly normal. I’ve never once heard her complain or expect sympathy. The people my Mum cares for essentially just want to feel happy and secure and that’s her main priority. She wants to do her job well and she does – completely. Whether that’s through providing emotional support, medical assistance or even through helping them feel independent and cared for, there are no exclusions, she does whatever is needed. A lot of the time dementia residents just don’t understand what’s happening, they feel scared and confused and their changing routines make that even more difficult than usual. Their moods and temperaments can change minute to minute, hour to hour.
Without care workers I cannot imagine where these people would be or what their lives would be like. I can’t understand why care workers, nurses, people working on the ‘lower-tier’ in the care world don’t get paid more than they do? I can’t grasp why this line of work is not considered more important by more than just the people who do the job! It’s criminal and it’s not fair.
Shift patterns sound tough, especially if you’re used to the usual 9-5, Monday to Friday type job. My Mum works 14 hour shifts mostly, which involve 7:15am-9.15pm working hours and occasionally she may have a 2.15pm start. Mostly four days a week but now, due to staff sicknesses, it’s at least five. There’s even talks about having to stay overnight if things get worse. (Since writing this post there have been two more confirmed COVID-19 cases on her ward).
When I asked my Mum why she does it, (knowing full well it wasn’t because of the very low pay), she said “The best thing about my job is seeing a resident smile, a glimmer of their personality shines through and knowing that that you’ve comforted them and helped them feel safe makes it all worth it. Plus, somebody’s got to do it.”
6.15am: My alarm goes off; I get up and make myself a cup of tea and get washed and dressed ready for the 10-minute drive to the home. At the moment we go in our own clothes and have to change in the locker room where a washed uniform will be waiting.
7.15am: On arrival we have our temperature taken then it’s time for the handover talk with the night staff and a cup of tea. I can’t really eat breakfast too early so it’s nice we’re allowed to eat at work, and I catch up with my colleagues before starting our morning duties.
7.30am: Wake ups begin. The home currently has over 100 residents and it is split into four sections: two dementia and two residential. I work on one of the dementia sections and currently look after 17 people with two other care workers and one senior carer who oversees the medicine. It’s non-stop on a morning and breakfast takes a long time.
Usually everyone sits together to eat but at the moment all residents must stay in their own rooms. Some patients can’t feed themselves, so we help those people, which means moving back and forth between rooms constantly. It’s also tricky to isolate dementia patients. Their routines have been changed and some patients don’t understand and continually get up for a walk so we have to lead them back. Sometimes the night staff help, but not today.
8.45am: Once we’ve cleared up breakfast, we then have to do the dishes. Our current kitchen assistant is off sick as her husband is ill with the virus so we’re doing this part ourselves. We’ll then move on to tidying the bedrooms, chatting to the residents, helping them get washed and dressed and eventually I get a 15-minute break which I take with the residents.
12:30pm: Lunch begins, and we repeat the morning routine again. One of my residents, George* is showing signs of COVID-19 and he coughed on me a couple of times. He keeps getting out of bed when he’s actually really poorly and doesn’t understand. We have to continually wipe and clean where he has been, to try and avoid putting any other patients at risk and we don’t have any PPE aside from a mask. It becomes pretty clear quite fast that George needs more help than we can give so we call the paramedics who attend and take him to hospital.
2:30pm: After a 30-minute break away on my own in the staff room I return to work for some afternoon activities. It’s a little bit quieter than usual and there’s an unusual atmosphere at the moment because everyone feels scared. Despite this we try to carry on as normal the best we can. Activities can be something simple like reading a book or a magazine, doing a jigsaw, playing some music and having a little sing-along. Hairdressers would usually visit but as that’s all stopped, we do their hair too. I like to curl some of the ladies’ hair and we’ll also take time with the bed-ridden patients to keep them as happy and comfortable as we possibly can.
5.30pm: Supper time begins, and we feed the residents and get to eat a meal ourselves.
6.30-7pm: The home is very much focussed on the residents’ well-being and having their own independence, so shortly after supper the bedtime part of the day begins. Some residents like to get ready quite early; others go a little bit later and one resident likes to stay up very late…he has quite a few naps in the daytime though. Nobody is forced to go to bed at a certain time and most will decide for themselves.
7.30pm: Today I had one of the most difficult experiences so far throughout the whole COVID pandemic. Gordon*, a 96-year-old patient who I’m particularly fond of, was terminally ill and nothing could be done to help him, aside from making him relaxed and pain-free. As no visitors are currently allowed in the home his children were unable to come and say goodbye, so we used an iPad to video call his son and daughter. I held his hand throughout the whole process trying to keep back tears, but the situation was very difficult and very sad. You cannot help but form relationships with these people and feel their pain and struggles. Gordon had the nicest of smiles and before he was poorly he was known for constantly saying “come on then” to all the staff. You could forgive him for anything because of that smile. Gordon died a little later on and his daughter sat outside the home for hours waiting for the funeral director to take his body so she could wave goodbye. This is the part people don’t see or hear about and it’s heart-breaking.
9.15pm: I finished on time today and after changing back into my own clothes, I made the short journey home, ran myself a bath and got into bed with a book. I need the book to help take my mind off the day and relax a little before going to sleep. Usually, if I wasn’t on an early start the next day, I’d have a fruity gin, talk to my friends or watch some television. At the moment it’s really difficult to switch off from the constant worry of a resident or colleague catching the virus. If one person gets ill the chances of everyone catching it, especially the vulnerable people in the home, are incredibly high. I just want this to end and can’t wait for us all to stop being so scared.
The support and friendships gained with my colleagues are also one of the most rewarding parts of my job. We are the only ones who truly understand what each other is going through. We chat outside of work, comfort those who are worried about going home and passing on the infection to their loved ones and we genuinely have a friendship like no other.
*Names have been changed to protect identities and I have purposely not mentioned the name of the care home where my Mum works.