Being a Caregiver

“As the population ages, more of us will be called upon to care for others. So we must understand the importance of recognizing and honouring the intrinsic worth of others, regardless of age or disability. Caring for another human being is sacred work that should have the essence of preserving human dignity at its heart.”
(Amanda Waring, The Heart of Care)
Over the years I have had the honour of working in many Care Homes across South Africa. I have done the direct care work – helping people to eat, bathing, showering, changing incontinence wear, brushing teeth, etc. I have worked shoulder to shoulder with Caregivers and management. I have trained more than a thousand Care Partners.
It is one of my favourite opening phrases when speaking at international conferences – “in South Africa, we have the best caregivers in the world”. I repeat – “we have the best caregivers in the world in this country”. When saying this in South Africa, I am often met with a blank stare. I can see the thoughts going…”what about the Carte Blanche episode of the Black carer slapping the white Elder?” Or “what about the Huisgenoot story of the Carers who threw the frail Elder out of bed?” This happens all over the world, not just in South Africa. It is not the norm. It is a sad part of the human condition that not all people are kind and humane. However…
Why would anyone want to work as a Caregiver in an “Old Age Home”? Twelve hour shifts, minumum wage, terrible abuse, demanding Elders and often even worse family members. (Trust me on this one, I have been on the receiving end of the most horrible verbal abuse. And I am a 6”3’ tall white man – I have been reduced to tears by a daughter-in-law of an Elder!) Cleaning soiled incontinence wear, scrubbing dentures, fishing old food out of someones mouth that they have been chewing on for sometimes an entire day, trying to get someone to eat pureed food that looks like – ok, you get the message. Caring is not a glamorous job – it is mostly a dead end job that can destroy your back and your selfworth. Why would anyone sign up for this job, willingly? “They only do this for the money” I am told over and over again.
I disagree – when you can earn substantially more money waving a red flag at roadworks working eight hour shifts, you will NOT become a Caregiver “for the money”. According to research, most non-Western Caregivers do this work because it is “a spritual calling”. They want to care, they want to make a difference.
Another interesting fact of this research – why do so many people leave the care sector? (Globally, the staff turn-over in the care sector ranges from 40% to 100 % per annum!) The number one reason why Caregivers leave their jobs is because they are not respected. They are not regarded as professional people – yet we “trust” them to do the most intimate work with our vulnerable family members. When Caregivers were asked what they mean by not being respected, the answer was “no one ever asks our opinion”.
So what is the point of this story? Our African and “coloured” Caregivers in South Africa do this work because it is a calling. They care instinctively, genuinely. What kills the calling is the lack of respect – NOT a lack of training or discipline, not a lack of policies or procedures. Respect. And the institutional system.
I always ask the management or professional nursing team in charge of Care Homes: “who knows the Elders the best?” The CEO? Nope! The Caregiver and the Cleaning Lady. Do the Elders miss the CEO when he/she goes on holiday? Nope! Do they miss the Cleaning Lady who spends time in their room every day? Hell yes!
If we want to tap into the spiritual calling that brought our Caregivers to our homes, we should start honouring them for the work that they do. We should acknowledge the relationships that they form with our Elders, the knowledge that they have of the needs of the frail and vulnerable. And we should start TRUSTING their instinctive caring, creating a supportive environment.
No amount of discipline, rules, policies, procedures, cameras will change the behaviour of adult people. Trusting and respecting them will go a long way towards bringing the best out of them at work. But more than that – being the person whom they want to emulate is possibly the best “training” that you can give to a Caregiver. We try and “teach” the values of respect, dignity, care, gentleness. Ask yourself the question – “how do I SHOW respect, dignity and care, respect towards the Caregivers who work with me, in every interaction that I have with them?” Do you mirror the behaviour that you want “them” to have in everything that you do?
We have the best caregivers in the world, in South Africa. If you do not agree with me, go and look in the mirror to find the reason why for you this is not the truth. I dare you!

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