There are few more contentious issues around the business of ageing than that of caring and finding a good carer. So often the subject gets a bad press, when headline-grabbing horrors such as physical cruelty, failures in hygiene, bullying and stealing are revealed at care homes. It isn’t always institutional, though. Sometimes these terrible acts are uncovered in care-users’ own homes.
It’s a combination of trustworthiness, compassion, training and an innate kindness that makes a good carer. Remove any one of those elements, and a person’s suitability for the job has to be questioned.
While we may be familiar with the frightening headlines, and the disgraceful details of the stories in the media, we very rarely hear the other side of the story: the care homes that deliver on every promise, and the carers who show sincere devotion and go the extra mile for their clients.
Many people’s first encounter with the care sector is likely to be when they suddenly have to start finding out about what is available in the way of help for themselves or a relative. Up to that point it is probably an unknown world. It certainly was when my sister and I started investigating how we could best share the care of our mother about four years ago.
Only the best for our Mum
Our requirement was modest: just someone to go to mother’s sheltered flat every morning at 9am and see to her personal needs – showering and dressing – and oversee her medication and a very simple breakfast. It wasn’t a big ask, especially as Mum was, and indeed still is, extremely agile for her age and, despite Alzheimer’s having robbed her of her short-term memory, good fun to be with and always very friendly and witty.
We asked around and looked around and eventually chose an agency in the town that promised to meet our need for this one hour of care. All went well for about two months, and we were pleased with the new system that enabled my sister and me to spend more quality time with Mum, being less harassed by the need to be with her at a certain time to help start her day.
Cracks in the system
Soon, the system to start showing cracks: carers not turning up, time-pressed carers leaving Mum’s medication out for her take (both dangerous and pointless with an Alzheimer’s client), and carers with no idea at all about basic hygiene and safety, evidenced by their leaving the bathroom in a mess and, very often, items of used medication and their wrappers scattered about the flat.
It gave us the impression that these ‘carers’ couldn’t care less and were very obviously poorly trained and badly managed. We realised we had fallen into the hands of that dreaded type of carer: the robot, who goes one-paced through those tasks they can be bothered to tackle without any feeling.
We extricated ourselves from the agency’s contract as quickly as possible, signing off with a letter listing our grievances, all of which we had brought to the manager’s attention in the preceding weeks but none of which had been satisfactorily addressed.
Being clear about the service you want
In place of the bad ‘un we signed up with a good ‘un – an agency so new we were its first clients, but, and perhaps this was key, the owner is a friend of my sister’s. To say we are pleased with the new carers is an understatement. True, there are one or two minor irritations (Close that cupboard! Put the pill box out of reach!), but on the whole the service we receive is exemplary. The carers are gentle, loving, thoughtful and, most important of all, especially now we’ve stepped up their visits to three a day, utterly reliable.
We clearly spelled out our requirements from the start, leaving no doubt about our expectation that they would turn Mum out neatly and well-dressed, with no bed-head hair and no gaping neckline, and with her flat left hazard-free.
Her carers tell us how much they love finding that our mother is on their rota and it makes their day to spend time with her. Some of them make time to indulge her interests by chatting about gardens, horses, lorries with interesting place names on their sides that they see passing by, and they’ll even march with her up and down the hall or have a rousing sing-song.
They care for our mother in just the way that my sister and I would, if only we had the time and lived closer. It is heartwarming and reassuring to know she is in good hands. It’s not cheap – the monthly bill is over £1,000 – but how could we ever put a price on her comfort and our peace of mind?
Contrast this with the experience of a friend who pays an agency to provide a carer for her mother for an hour at 9am each day. The service has been erratic, sometimes with a no-show several days running, and the arrival time can be anything between 7am and mid-day, almost negating the point of the call. Another friend has found her mother still in bed in the evening, the carer having failed to arrive for either the morning or lunchtime visit.
These incidents are obviously unacceptable, for what is a carer if it is not someone who ‘cares’ in all senses of that word: someone who cares not just about the person whose world they are trusted to share but who cares about their own professionalism?
Be sure to do your research
For this reason, when choosing a carer, it is worth checking if the agency has an established system of training for users’ specific requirements such as stroke or Alzheimer’s, and a genuine set of testimonials from satisfied clients.
Caring is stress-filled, relentless, immensely hard work, often pitifully unrewarding – and yet it’s often heart-warming and stimulating and hugely responsible, too. Our lives, and our loved ones’ lives, are in their hands, and for this reason the job of caring deserves much greater recognition and reward as a worthwhile career.
Our present loosely sewn together patchwork of agencies around the country, staffed by carers who are too often over-worked and underpaid, and from whom we, the users, have to take pot luck, is hardly going to cope with that ticking time-bomb.
This blog was written by the late Rosie Staal, prior to her death a long-time contributor to Age Space. A writer and journalist Rosie and her sister looked after their Mum’s care for many years.