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Residential caregivers deserve more

For this, my first foray into the blogosphere, I had grand plans for insightful comment that distilled years of research into pithy, relevant comment.

Katherine RavensfieldI wanted to wow you with my intellect yet show you that I still had a firm grasp on the world outside of the ivory tower.

Well, last weekend all those aspirations flew out the window and instead I felt compelled to bare my soul.

Why? I’ve just finished research into working conditions in residential aged care. And then I visited my nana, who is the grand old age of 98.

She’s been in a rest home for a few years now. But despite her age, she hasn’t lost her marbles and has been relatively mobile on previous visits. When we got to the home we went to reception first to check which room she was in (she had had a few falls recently, maybe a minor stroke, and was going to be assessed for a ‘hospital’ bed).

We stood at reception and waited. We rang the bell, and waited. The elderly residents on watch advised us to ring the bell harder. We did. And again. And again. No sign of staff anywhere. We wandered the warm halls of the rest home thinking surely we’d bump into someone who worked there. No.

Eventually we got to Nana’s room. She was on her back on the bed, tired, and not so perky this time. It was sobering. And then with a few, slightly slurred words Nana drove the sharp edge of my research into my heart and it all became very personal.

She had had another fall that day because she didn’t ask for help to get up. Not because she was determined to be independent, but because she didn’t want to be a nuisance and she knew the staff were busy – there weren’t enough of them.

They try hard, she said, but so many "keep finishing" (Nana-speak for high turnover), and the new ones, she said, don’t have the training.

It’s not that they don’t care, or don’t try, but lifting old, frail people from beds to chairs to toilets to showers is hard, heavy work (even with the ubiquitous hoists). It takes training and skill – and oodles of compassion and plenty of time.

In a few short sentences, Nana spoke of some of the key issues in the sector: low-paid undervalued caregivers doing hard physical and emotional work; fewer employees per residents than a decade or so ago; residents who are more frail and dependent on help than before.

So it’s hard to keep caregivers – unless they really love their job, as many of them do.

I ask you: what kind of care do you want for your nana, or yourself, when you reach that point in life? It’s time we recognised the work for what it is, and rewarded it accordingly.

 Katherine Ravenswood is a lecturer in management at AUT University.