I was angry with my child one night for taking over an hour to go to sleep. He’d been kicking me, I was overtired, feeling sick as well, and I reacted by getting up and leaving him crying, lecturing him that he needed to go to sleep. I instantly regretted it. He needed me and in a moment of weakness I’d forgotten what a sacred trust he puts in me each and every day to look after his welfare. I forgot to look at him with the eyes I regularly look at my aged care clients with.
The thing was, that in that moment of not looking at him as my child, but as a concept (a sleep-stealer) I had lost his trust. All my previous times I’ve been patient, all of those late-night reassurances and endless settling, had been forgotten in a moment. What I did in that moment had been more important to him than all my previous moments and cares I’d given him.
What’s this got to do with aged care? Aged care or any type of care can be a tough job to work in. I’ve always believed it takes a special person to work and stay in a carer’s job. I hear frequently from carers and other staff about how the hours can be long, the rewards — at least financially — not so great and the clients (and even their families) at times demanding. Add in never ending government regulations and increasing amounts of paperwork and other demands on time, and an outsider must wonder why anyone works in these jobs, let alone why they do and stay so courteous, professional, caring and dedicated.
What I find, though, unfailingly, in every staff member I have met, is that they all started out working in this area because they wanted to help others and make a difference. Most staff also tell me that, despite the stresses, they actually love their jobs. So how does it happen that such wonderful and dedicated staff can be anything less than lovely with a resident?
The same reason I was short with my son. We’re all human we can have a bad day, have eaten bad food, been stressed or otherwise affected. We can’t ever know what’s going on in someone’s life that day. We can forget sometimes that others are human too. We stop looking at another as a person and instead put someone in a category as a concept “they are a difficult client”, “he’s difficult to work with” etc.
I’m sure we can all relate. It’s easy to slip for just a moment. We can even justify it to ourselves: “I’m normally great with others, it was just a bad day”. The trouble is that even when we are lovely 99% of the time, people will still remember the 1%. You would still end up in court if you only ever punched someone once in your life. Every moment matters.
If seeing others as getting in our way keeps happening, we need to talk to someone about it because it means we’ve lost sight of what we’re here for and why we started doing the jobs that we do. We need someone to care for us, as we do for others. Let others do unto us, as we do unto others.
On a plane, the safety messages tell you to look after your own oxygen needs before you try to help someone else with their oxygen. In aged care, and in life, you have to look after your own care needs before you try to help someone with their care needs. In my case, I should have told my wife I wasn’t coping that night and needed her to take over.
Doctors know this concept of not coping with the well-studied phenomenon of ‘heart-sink clients’. Every doctor has some: clients that make their hearts sink when they think of having to treat them (the heart ‘sinks’ i.e. moves away from caring). The thing is, though, the research has found that if a doctor perceives more clients than their peers on average as ‘heart-sink-, it means it’s the doctor’s perceptions of the client, their own stress levels, job satisfaction, communication, training etc. that may be the issue, not the client themselves. In fact, the doctors who reported having more ‘heart-sink’ patients than their peers, correlated with a much higher rate of burnout.
So, we’ve established that not caring even for a moment can matter not just to our clients but to us as well. And if we work in caring, and caring normally comes naturally to us, something must be wrong for us NOT to be caring.
I remember a client I used to dread seeing. He was rude and never did any of the exercises I wanted him to do, and at the time the thought of him definitely made my heart not just sink but sink without a trace! I knew though that he was never going to change, but that I could. The next time I was scheduled to treat him, I deliberately booked a massage immediately beforehand. I felt so great, I bounced in to treat the client. He even said to me: “What the hell are you smiling about?” I didn’t care. It was like I was treating a different person – he was surprised that I didn’t even mind that he hadn’t done his exercises. Our whole dynamic changed. Next time he came back he’d done his exercises for the first time, felt great as a result and we had a great treatment relationship after that. I smile thinking of him now.
Luckily for us, we can help our clients with their own heart-sink moments. A resident can be having a really tough time, for example they may have just had a fight with their family. One smile/hug/kind word from a carer can make their day. For all I know the simple moment of smiling at my client as a person rather than a ‘heart-sink’ concept was all it took to get him into another space. And that moment came from another moment when I’d decided to have that massage I’d been putting off having.
Do you want to know something really weird? I’ve even seen residents who have awful health conditions themselves, notice a carer is stressed, hobble over in pain themselves and give the carer a hug. The roles were reversed. Sometimes I’ve had my clients be my best therapy, too. Certainly, Mr the-symbol-previously-known-as-heart-sink was for me. I thought of him, when I had other tricky clients (such a man who, for two years, would tell me to “f*** off” when I came into the room, and then be my best friend by the end of the session – and would then forget who I was before our next session, so it would start all over again).
We’re all human, which is easy to forget sometimes. We can all help each other and remind each other why we’re working in this industry and why we started – no matter what role we’re in.
We can all help others better, if we allow others to help us first. It’s easy to forget to ask for help sometimes, just as I needed to with my son, and need reminding. Every moment and every person matter. You matter too. I just wanted to remind you. Do you need some heart lifting too? A massage, maybe some more time with your family, some exercise, a talk with a professional?
The moment of deciding you’re worth it, even if it’s for less than 1% of your day, matters most of all.