Caring for the elderly and infirm

23:53, Jun 12 2012

I can only remember one of the women's names.

But I can vividly recall the challenges the four provided care staff and which corner of the geriatric hospital ward they occupied.

Nearest the door on the left was Sylvia. Before my stint as a nurse aide I would have thought urine and faeces would have been the most gag-inducing bodily fluid I would have to deal with.

I was wrong.

Sylvia had a disease brought on by alcoholism and dribbled, down my arms, on my uniform.

She was skin and bones but thankfully had a large extra padded chair to keep her as comfortable as possible. It was bright pink and a welcome burst of colour.


Sylvia was by no means what we would call old these days.

On the left nearer the window was a woman in a wheelchair who was severely deaf. As with many older people, her skin was cheap tissue paper thin.

I do remember her smile and warm nature.

Opposite was a woman with dementia.

She was still quite mobile, but had little control over her bladder and used to put her soiled incontinence pads in her drawer.

The fourth woman was a European immigrant who barely spoke any English.

She was particularly short, her face only reaching up to my bust. This was brought home to me on my last day when she bit me on the breast, her way of communicating I had inadvertently hurt her.

I had worked in rest homes before as a cleaner and in the kitchen and had got a buzz out of being able to communicate with the residents.

I had not sought a job as a nurse aide, but there were no cleaning jobs going, so I was given the care of these four women – toileting, showering, dressing, feeding.

When I most needed to be able to communicate with older people, their physical and mental challenges meant I could not.

I was lucky it was not my fulltime job, doing one shift a week while writing my masters thesis.

I only lasted a few months.

I took the boob bite on my last day as a sign I had made the right decision.

As Judy McGregor, the Human Rights Commission's equal employment opportunities commissioner, found after working undercover in an aged care hospital, the job is physically and emotionally draining.

It is also a huge responsibility, and unlike babies, older people needing care don't grow up, communicate better and become less demanding.

Sadly, it is the other way round.

"Saint-like women do it every day so that older New Zealanders can have a quality of life," Dr McGregor said.

I was not one of those saints, although the principal nurse was kind enough to acknowledge my resignation with a letter saying my "caring, compassionate and gentle nature was very evident to the ladies in `your cubicle'."

It is time the skills required for caring for older people are adequately financially compensated.

Think of this need next time you reach for the toilet paper.

Manawatu Standard