“Oh lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz”
Georgia Bowers began her career working in a care home for over 100 older people. She went on to develop as an artist, engaging with older people by bringing theatre into non-traditional space. She returned to the same care home during the pandemic.
As I leave my car, I notice that today something is different. Surrounding me is a mixture of Mercedes, Audis and even a Lexus, instantly I think there must be a regional directors’ meeting taking place. The clue is the array of expensive vehicles which are offered to managers and senior members of the care provider. Some view these vehicles as an incentive or reward for hard work and dedication to the company but for many carers these luxury vehicles highlight the disparity between wages and status.
As I enter the care home and begin to travel along the worn-out brown carpet, I am met with a feeling of urgency as my colleague quickly says to me “we’re down some carers, so you’ll have to support with lunches is that ok?”. This of course is not a problem as the care industry is built upon an ethos of teamwork, where staff from management to housekeeping all contribute towards different tasks that may vary from their own role when staffing levels are low.
The sense of camaraderie has ensured the successful running of many care homes, which due to a lack of funding and support is a sector that has long been on the brink of collapse. However, the lack of staff also means that I won’t be able to take a break until around 3pm, which when you start at 8.30am can be a long time. This isn’t the first time this has occurred and in a system which is overstretched it won’t be the last.
Often caring roles are subjected to low pay, low social status and being viewed as low skilled. The day-to-day experience of a task force which is largely made up of women is thought to predominantly consist of staff supporting residents in getting dressed, having a shower, or using the toilet. However, while the notion of care does include these tasks, at the heart of care is human connection.
The significance of connection is not only exclusive to the resident but often expands to family members around the individual. I have witnessed how care staff have contributed towards relieving a sense of guilt that some may feel for placing their loved one in a care home or act as a mediator between warring families. I have watched as carers have offered tissues to families when the pressures of funding residential care become all too much or have held their hand as their relative gently passes away.
The experience of death not only affects families and friends. Many times, I have found myself and colleagues taking a moment to feel the grief and loss of a resident, who has enriched and brought joy to our lives. The relational practice which care staff demonstrate every day is anything but unskilled and requires a high level of emotional intelligence and empathy.
The innate richness of connection with residents often keeps tired and exhausted care staff working in the sector. However, as we move forward from the COVID-19 pandemic, we can no longer exploit these unique bonds.
While there is a care home car park full of vehicles which are individually worth more than the yearly salary of a carer, I advocate that we review the distribution of salaries and recognise the high value of meaningful, heart-led care.
This article forms part of ‘Conversations with Carers’ supported by Arts Council of England. Led by inclusive dance company Step Change Studios, the initiative seeks to give voice to the lived experience of carers through a series of articles and podcasts. The themes from these conversations have inspired a collection of dance performances on film. For further details visit: www.stepchangestudios.com/conversations