Last weekend marked my last shift in aged care after three years as a carer. I was barely 18 when I started after also beginning to study a nursing degree. Nursing only lasted one year, as I quickly figured out that the high turnover rate in the hospital was not conducive to forming meaningful relationships with patients. Thankfully, aged care is. Some of my closest friends are now around four times older than I am.
I can recall my first shift in vivid detail, especially crying the entire way home. This was because the first thing I learnt, and very quickly, is that the old, sick and dying are hidden away from the rest of society. Something that I now fiercely disagree with. I have been known to float the idea that instead of having National Service in the Defence Force as some countries do, Australia should introduce National Community Service and make everyone spend a year in aged care. But in case that doesn’t appeal to you, I’ll just share some of the things I’ve learnt along the way.
Don’t be afraid of old people.
They’re people. Sounds stupid, but I definitely had to learn this. Sometimes they’re kind and funny, and sometime they’re grumpy and unreasonable, just like young people and children and adults. We are all the same. In aged care you work in their home, so sometimes you just have to grin and bear it.
Age is only a number.
It does not dictate how a person will act. Some of my residents loved to knit and drink tea, and some of my residents were better with technology than I am and spent their days on Facebook and Skyping their grandchildren. One of my residents loved to tell fart jokes. Which leads on to…
Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Life is fun and as all my residents told me, it’s way too short. So enjoy it. You are never too old to try something new, so never use that as an excuse. Also, that whole “you only regret the things you didn’t do thing” is a cliche for a reason.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
I had residents who would put their bras on by doing them up at the front and twisting them around. I had residents with bras that did up in front or on the sides. I had residents who would wear them over their singlets. And I even had a lady who would do her bra up, put in on the ground and then step into it and pull it all the way up. This taught me two things. One, there are as many ways of living as there are people, just them get on with it. And two, bras are so needlessly complex. It’s 2016, surely there’s an easier way.
Death isn’t that bad.
Simply, the past three years have taught me that death isn’t so terrible. I have seen peaceful and happy deaths. Most of the time, death doesn’t suck for the person who dies. It’s welcomed. As Dumbledore said, ‘to the well organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.’ Sometimes death means relief from pain, discomfort and illness. I think after so many years, life would just wear you down. What does suck though is being left behind.
Aged care has also taught me that voluntary euthanasia should be legal, and ASAP. No one should suffer needlessly. I will never forget the family of a terminally ill man turning to me one day and saying ‘we wouldn’t do this to a dog.’ And that is the terrible part of death. As a society we’re so scared of it that we’ll do anything to delay it, even on the part of those who would welcome it.
Take care of yourself.
You have one body, take care of it. Eat well, treat yourself to nice things, wear sunscreen, walk lots and smile.
Hugs are free.
And so are smiles. Give them freely.
And lucky last and most importantly; people are wonderful.
Three years in aged care has changed me into a completely different, but infinitely better person. I am so fortunate to have met the people I’ve met and to be able to care for them when they needed it. I have met and cared for Holocaust survivors, one of the Rats of Tobruk, the mother of a famous rock star, ten centenarians, numerous teachers, nurses, lawyers, doctors, soldiers and Reverends, as well as many more beautiful, elderly, people. And while I have definitely changed, I cried even more on the way home after my last shift.