This week, I have done my last ever shift in a dementia-specific care home. Whilst the experience hasn’t been a negative one, I can’t say that I’m particularly upset that I’m leaving. Or, to put it another way, I didn’t take a picture of my staff room on my last day, captioned: ‘going to miss this place so much #lastday #movingon’ like I usually do. Or, to put it in an even simpler way: I am looking forward to not crying my eyeliner off of my face every single day without fail.
Those of you who know me from outside of work will most definitely be perplexed at that last sentence. I am not a crier. I do not show outward emotion – I pride myself on the fact that I have never cried at a relative’s death or subsequent funeral, even when everyone else around me is sobbing their eyes out. I am stony to the core.
Until I became a dementia carer, that is.
First of all, let’s get this straight. Nobody was mean to me in this job, at least not deliberately. I was given adequate time to rest and eat during my long shifts. I wasn’t driven to tears due to any issue of maltreatment. And let’s also be clear that this is not an issue that I face by myself from working in this industry. A male co-worker once told me that, on his second day as a dementia carer, he locked himself in a toilet cubicle and cried like a baby because of the reality of the job. He was one of the many friends I made who simply disappeared into the ether; suddenly they never turned up for work again. Another former co-worker told me that she had started to call in sick because she ‘didn’t want to be here anymore’. I told her I knew how she felt. I worked every single day of my 8-week notice period, and I never pulled a sickie – but I understood the sentiment all too well.
To anybody whose never dealt with the latter stages of dementia first-hand, either through their workplace or their family health, you will never understand the ways that it will change you. In the simplest sense, you will never again take for granted the ease of verbal communication – you will forever understand the importance of telling people what you want, and how you want it done. It’s not bossiness – it’s a basic human right. For example, I take my tea black with no sugar, anything else is undrinkable. On a deeper, more spiritual level, it will change the way in which you look at life. I used to believe that I was taking photos and making Facebook statuses so that I could look back on my adolescent life when I was eighty to remember the good times. Now, with dementia the biggest killer in the UK, I am accepting of the possibility that I may not remember my direct family in 40 years time, let alone my university extra-curricular activities. (No euphemism intended. Honestly.)
Anyway. Instead, I am trying incredibly hard to be focussed on the here and now: the present moment. I am almost allergic to the idea of waiting, of ‘putting things off to the future’. I’m fairly sure I’m driving a few of my friends mad. I’ve resolved to not take photos during cultural outings such as gigs, firework displays and city breaks. My intention was always to make memories, but now my focus has shifted – these days, I wish to feel things. Happiness, predominantly. I want to laugh and smile and just enjoy everything. I don’t give a shit if I don’t remember it afterwards. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the moment existed.
To the people who have made their life dedicated to the care of adults with dementia, I salute you. And I’m not talking about the managers or the support workers here. The ones who are forty-something and have no wish to do anything other than come to work every day and get ‘on the floor’ and do what we call ‘the actual care’. The toilet rounds, washing and dressing – that kind of thing. You are strong and brave and wonderful and you deserve all the recognition that you will never receive. Some people will be extremely quick to shout your faults as loud as they possibly can, and yet be consistently and reliably unforthcoming with due credit or praise. My only regret? I’d advise others never to accept the seeming impenetrability of the bureaucracy above your heads – someone somewhere will listen to you, as long as your demeanour is calm and your work ethic is strong. It’s the same ethos behind a business pitch – if you wish to implement a change, be sure to show solid evidence that the change gives good results. I mean, I’ve never given a business pitch, but I guess that’s how they get sponsorship – a ‘here is proof that this won’t damage your credibility’ kind of deal.
Also, do not be afraid of doing the right thing. Last week, I asked a couple of employees to help a resident with something. I told them they had to do it, that not doing it was not an option, and that if they ran into difficulty to call me over. And I reiterated again that it was ‘not good enough’ to not complete this task, whilst stressing that if they were out of their depth, I would pause my medication round to provide a third pair of hands. I walked away thinking that I had been too harsh, perhaps verging on nasty with my wording. Fifteen minutes later, both staff members were handing out cups of tea and this person had not been helped. I wanted to bollock them, but I didn’t trust myself to not sound absolutely livid. Care brings out our emotions, or, it should do. Speaking to a deputy manager about the incident later in the day, she said I should have asked them why they hadn’t done what I asked, that I shouldn’t be afraid to put people in their place who deserved it, and remind them that, as their Head of Care, they had to respect me. That it is okay, at times, to demand respect. My mishandling of this incident plays on my mind now that I’ve left. My solution was to do what I’ve always done – complete the task myself because others cannot be trusted to do it properly. A little voice in the back of my head tells me that that is a bad philosophy to live by, but I’ve yet to find proof of this. So, for now, I think, why make the change?