The vision I get in my head and what most people think is someone who sits around, talking to their coworkers, while they get paid large amounts of money to "babysit" some people who can't take care of themselves. Oh if only it was so my friends. If only it was so. More people would flock to this line of work and there wouldn't be such a high turnover rate. Working at McDonald's I saw less of a turnover in staff. So what does a support worker do?
Well, we provide a whole slew of care for mentally and physically disabled people. It really isn't just taking care of their personal hygiene and making sure they are fed. It might be different in an institution setting, but, in the community homes the job is intense and demanding.
Where I work they have a motto of "freeing the spirit" and enabling a persons potential. Those that see someone in a wheel chair, or some physical disability see limitations, our community homes prove there is more to this, you just need to look closer. These people are extremely intelligent and usually "trapped" in their bodies or minds or sometimes both. They are unable to communicate in the traditional ways. We need to listen closer. We need more patience. We need to try to provide oppoutunities to do things, others have said are not possible. Sometimes, it is not possible, sometimes things need a modification, but at least we are giving them opportunities to try and keep trying. Giving them a quality of life they wouldn't normally have.
To do this, instead of living in an institution, my clients are placed in community homes to live as normal lives as possible. We then become their caregivers in every sense of the word. We protect them from exploitation inside the home and outside in the community. We assist them in dressing, bathing, and eating as expected, but it doesn't end there. We are to help build harmony between them and their roommates. We become their most trusted allies.
We help them maintain and strengthen their family ties, which in some cases isn't easy. Unfortunately, once these people get into the community homes, as the "burden" of 24 hour care is relieved from the family member (typically the parent), keeping these family interactions on a consistent basis becomes harder as these family members find a freedom in their lives they haven't experienced since their child was born. That stressor is gone. Much like when we leave our parents and have families of our own. While we don't intend to have more and more time space the moments we spend together it happens. The difference in our "normal" lives is that we have to be accountable for ourselves to keep in touch with those aging parents.
We are their bankers. We have to ensure they have funds to do fun things, yet, still buy things like clothing, personal hygiene products, everything we would need in our own lives. We are their lifeline to the simple things like swimming, going to a movie theatre, going to the beach, a walk down the street. We are their advocates in the community, showing that they can live functionally and safely, making much better neighbours in most cases than your average joe.
We are their maids and cooks. We have to maintain a good eye on what's healthy for each client, maintain their weight and their medications. Keep their living space clean and healthy. Teaching them and in most cases reteaching daily and hourly as short term memory and delayed learning impedes remembering why it's important to use the washroom more than once a day. Or why we get undressed or dressed in a bedroom or washroom with a door closed.
We are the yard maintanance workers. We mow those lawns, pull those weeds and seed that grass. We shovel and salt those driveways and sidewalks. We put in the reports if something is broken that we cannot possibly fix without the extra help.
We are the Occupational Therapists outside of the OT appointments. Being taught how use wheelchairs, lifts, special equipement so our clients can be more mobile and use normally unused limbs to keep muscle tone and the insides healthy and moving to do their jobs.
We are the medical advocates when something goes wrong and the medical doctors or teams need to know past health, current meds and what happened in order to have their jobs easier, the right diagnosis made and the best solution applied. We are the frontline to keeping these people alive and healthy.
There is easy burnout in this as there is so much to do. So much to know. We don't get breaks like everyone else, and some days, I don't get to use the washroom. My pay is not much higher than minimum wage for doing the job of at least 5 different people. I work anywhere from 8 - 12 hrs per shift and can be mandated to work the next shift if they have a sick call and no one is available to come in. So that becomes a 16 - 20 hrs shift very quickly.
I'm not complaining about my job, it gives me a satisfaction that I wouldn't get anywhere else. I'm just tired of being seen as "just a support worker", just like I get tired of being seen as "just a mom" when wanted to be a stay at home mom. My job gives someone a new lease on life, a chance to be something and someone they otherwise never would have been. At the same time it gives me purpose and a new lease on my own life. What I'd like is people to see the truth in all we do do. It's not easy work, definitely not worth the little pay we get, one of the common complaints is the allotment of money from the top down and from the institution setting to the home settings. I'm hoping that one day all we do will be seen for the superhero feats they can be some days. That I won't be seen as "just as support worker" and that maybe my pay will start reflecting it or at least going up at the same pace as the standard of living.
So next time you hear someone say they are "just a support worker", give them a hug or a high five and remind them of the importance of their chosen super hero profession. Or if you are tempted to say that to or about someone else, stop yourself and remember they are doing what most of society cannot.