A Motion

My journey into the world of care started by accident when I was about to turn sixteen and had just finished school. With a long summer ahead, I wanted to earn some money. One Sunday morning I heard the minister read a request from an elderly lady looking for help around the house. I had always been brought up in church and every Sunday my mum would expect me to talk to each well-retired member of the congregation with a fixed smile, politely answering questions about my siblings and school. While at nine years old this felt laborious, it did mean I was used to speaking to elderly people so the idea of helping a lady at home sounded pretty good to me. The hours were short - just two hours on Saturdays and Sundays in the early evening. I could still go out afterwards and the money was unusually good for 1997. I told the minister I'd be happy to help her and he arranged for me to meet Hayley, the woman who covered the weekday shifts.

When I arrived she seemed concerned about my age (or lack of) and kept asking if I was sure I wanted this job. The money flashed through my mind and I assured her that I did. After all, how hard could a bit of hoovering and cleaning be?! I was taken into a bedroom to meet Ida. She was a ninety-four year old, stern and perfectly-spoken lady in a Victorian-looking night dress with a tight grey bun on her head . I was never told why but she was bedbound and spent all her days in this dimly-lit room, lying in a high bed surrounded by as many wardrobes as the room would allow. She was unlike anyone I'd met before; even the members of the church I had known didn't seem this ancient. I felt like I was being introduced to a character from a Charles Dickens novel and her dark, damp flat had the same sense of history as she did. There seemed to be a sepia haze in every room from lack of natural light. The huge dark wardrobes that filled the bedroom were in stark contrast to the barren kitchen, which consisted of just a small freestanding oven, a table and a sideboard. 

It was in this kitchen that I was to prepare Ida's meals. I say meals... it was a peculiar but consistent diet she existed on. I had to boil up a whole chicken at the start of my shift, leaving it bubbling away for two hours while I got on with other jobs. Then, after that time, I strained the liquid from the pan to give Ida the broth she liked to drink. This was accompanied by a boiled egg and soldiers, an orange and a piece of chocolate cake. This never wavered and she seemed to look forward to this odd little feast every shift. I remember my boyfriend's dad at the time saying that, in a strange way, it was probably quite a balanced diet. These tasks were simple and, if the job description had been accurate, it would've been an easy little job. The job description, however, was far from accurate. I wasn't actually expected to help around the house, as I had been led to believe.

The job was that of a care assistant, something I had no training for - or knowledge of - whatsoever. Looking back now, I cringe at my naivety and the unsafe manner in which I had to work. I can now completely understand why Hayley was unsure about me taking on the role; each shift involved bed-bathing Ida, changing her incontinence pads, changing her bed and washing her sheets, before leaving her with the food I'd prepared. I was annoyed that the job had been advertised so misleadingly but I decided to give it a go. As I said, the money for a sixteen year old was great, especially as I only had to work for four hours a weekend, so I returned the next week to complete my first shift solo.

I arrived at the now-familiar musky flat and Ida greeted me from her bed. First I got the chicken in a pan and then filled a bowl with warm, soapy water. I managed to roll Ida onto her side in the middle of the bed so that I could remove the pads and sheets from beneath her. When I had met Hayley and she had shown me how to do this, I had underestimated how heavy Ida was. She was a very tall lady and, being bedbound, had virtually no strength which made her a dead weight. I was a 5'3" teenager so it took all my might to hold her in position, while I wriggled everything off the bed. To my horror, I discovered that, unlike the previous shift, the pads weren't just wet they were full of shit! I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me that this was a possibility - being an inexperienced young girl probably had something to do with it - but I just froze for a second, not quite sure what to do next. I rolled the pads up to contain their contents and placed them neatly on the floor until I could dispose of them properly. Then with the old sheets still in place, I washed Ida, making sure she was completely clean. Getting the sheets off the bed wasn't too difficult but putting the clean ones on while she was in the middle of the bed was exhausting, as she couldn't hold herself in position. I had to tuck them as neatly and securely as I could - without her falling backwards onto them - until I was ready. When I was, I gently rolled her back into position but, because there were several mattresses on the bed, I then had to climb onto it to sort out the side she didn't sleep on. I have no idea why she needed it so high, it really didn't feel comfortable and made it like a waterbed. Feeling quite proud of myself for accomplishing this grim task, I then bagged up the soiled pads and put them outside.

Next came the task of washing the sheets. There was no washing machine!! Ida curtly advised me that I needed to wash them in the bath which filled me with horror. Again having no gloves in the house meant that I had to very gingerly hose them down as best I could and leave them to soak while I prepared her food (after washing my hands about thirty times to feel clean enough to do this). The sheets were never white or crisp but it was the best I could do in her archaic bathroom. After their soak, I would rinse and wring them out and hang them on a line in the overgrown courtyard. It's a mystery to me how they ever dried since no sunlight could reach through the canopy of branches. I then served Ida the meal that she always anticipated so eagerly. Just before she tucked into it, she asked for her purse so that she could pay me. When I had been told about the job the rate had been advertised as £15-£20 per shift. I wasn't sure what the £5 difference was for but I was about to find out. In her stern, matter-of-fact fashion, she announced that I was to be paid £15 if she didn't 'pass a motion' and £20 if she did. I stared blankly, thinking that a motion was something passed in court, not in a bed, and then I realised. My wage depended on her bowel movements. Could this really be a payment scheme?! I took the £20, convinced that I more than deserved it and left Ida clean, comfortable and sipping her broth, while I felt overwhelmed and unsure whether I could return.

After this first experience, I spoke to my boyfriend, friends and family who were all horrified at the tasks I'd had to complete. My teenage friends thought I was mad. I have since asked my parents why they let me continue with this job, knowing that I was ill-equipped and completely unsupported there. They felt that I was coping with it well and knew I was capable for my age. I am the eldest of four and was used to helping my mum with my siblings, particularly my brother, who was nine years younger than me. Also, I had previously discussed with them the idea of midwifery as a career, most likely influenced by the frequent home visits and appointments during my mum's pregnancies. They thought that if I was serious about training as a midwife, this would be good experience. After that first shift, I did contemplate getting a job in Sainsbury's or similar but decided it would have taken me so many more hours to earn £30-£40 at the age I was. I chose to return and give it another go but this time armed with rubber gloves. It was far from easy and the thought of sitting at a checkout was, at times, appealing. But something in me knew it was right. I felt satisfied each time I left Ida, knowing that I had improved her day and prepared her for a restful night. This doesn't mean I didn't struggle every time she told me I had done something wrong or that my hairstyle was silly and would give me bad eyesight (I was thrilled with my new on-trend Rachel cut!) but I saw out the summer taking care of her. Months of lugging her across and up her bed began to take it's toll on me physically though, since I had no knowledge of manual handling at this time and, by September, I had decided I needed to finish this job. We had developed a slightly warmer relationship but she was by no means fond of me, nor I her. I walked out of her flat for the last time feeling a sense of achievement but mostly relief.


Comments

  1. Hi Emma so enjoyed reading how you were introduced to elder care giving . It was truly trial by fire and I must say for a teenager you did quite well. I love how God used that to shape you and begin to move you into this career of care giving. I also at 19 years of age got a job at a 24 hour medical group first in the administration but then because my job was sporatic I was out on the floor learning how to do patient care so when they hired an older person to take my job the head nurse asked to have me and she and the rest of the staff taught me all I knew including xray I worked in 2 different medical groups from age 19 to 27 years old when I got married an moved away any way love your blogg. Cousin across the pond Kathy :)

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    1. I never knew you worked in healthcare too! Thank you x

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  2. Such an interesting and eye opening read! You were clearly born to care for people if you could get through such a challenging role at such a young age. The NHS and it’s patients are lucky to have you. Alice x

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    1. Thank you, your opinion on my writing means a lot!

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