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“Did you know I used to fly a Spitfire?”
On Armistice Day my husband and I were out having lunch. The conversation naturally turned to history and the reason we have an Armistice Day remembrance. (My husband is a military history buff and as such had a wide knowledge of it which he doesn't mind sharing with me!) We got to talking about the kinds of jobs civilians, especially women, did during the First and Second World Wars. It turns out that not only did women work in munitions factories - a well-known fact - but I learnt that they also delivered the military aeroplanes they were helping to build. ‘Ordinary’ women who might have been housewives or shop assistants before the war were flying warplanes from the factories to the airfields.
This got me thinking of our job as carers where we live and work with elderly people, spending almost 24 hours a day with strangers and getting to know them on one level, as they are now. Perhaps the person we care for has dementia, perhaps he or she has a debilitating condition such as Parkinson's or MS, or perhaps he or she is strong in mind and just needs a little assistance or companionship. Whatever the scenario, we only get to know our clients when they are usually in the sunset of their lives, when they no longer resemble the person they were, either physically or mentally.
We read a brief synopsis of the care plan but that doesn't tell us nearly enough about the person inside, the person who may be hidden or locked inside that frail body. It is easy to forget that the person with the Zimmer frame, who is displaying confusion or agitation due to his or her condition of dementia, was once a young, strong person who lived a full life and who very probably did some amazing things.
Perhaps that 95-year-old lady who is now small and frail and a bit confused actually flew Spitfires in the last world war or drove an ambulance on a battlefield. Imagine that. Imagine if we could keep that image in our minds… how it could help us get to know that person better. It could help us care for that person more effectively. Help us be more loving and understanding when they have woken us up for the fifth time during the night and our nerves are beginning to fray.
We usually know what our client did for a living but perhaps we don't know that they volunteered in an animal sanctuary, or that they marched for women's rights in the sixties. Maybe your client climbed Mt Kilimanjaro or was a code breaker. Or maybe she or he lived a regular life, not doing anything spectacular. They were still once a somebody, different to what we may see now.
It is well worth taking the time to find out and using that knowledge to foster conversations or to encourage the person to take more of an interest in life again. Most of us do this already quite intuitively. As carers, we are interested in people and in what makes them tick. For me, it is exciting to know more about the person who is inside the frail body, to bear that image in my mind because it helps me build a better rapport with the person. It also helps me temper any frustration I may feel from time to time when the going gets tough, as we all know it does in live-in care. 'Getting to know you’ is a vital and delightful aspect of this fulfilling job we do.
I urge you all to 'go for it’, to really get to know your client. Look at photographs, certificates on the wall, trophies on the mantelpiece or national events on the calendar. All these tips help enormously in providing you with clues as to what lies inside a person. Be prepared to be amazed by what you find out.