A Friend in Need: How Professional Caregivers Become More Than Givers of Care
An unexpected guest at my grandfather’s funeral said it all.
Only a few months before he passed away, we had found the perfect professional caregiver: Gary. My grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s, spent the last eight months of his life bedridden and needed around-the-clock care. But grooming, bathing and getting him dressed were physically impossible for my grandmother, the primary family caregiver. Grandpa also seemed quite uncomfortable with any other females in our family assisting him with these personal care activities. When the home care agency sent Gary –a tall, strong, kind young man—we were hopeful.
It didn’t take long to see Gary was physically capable of transferring, lifting and moving Grandpa in the bed to bathe and dress him. He was so gentle with him, but he also had the strength necessary for the task. When he shaved Grandpa, we didn't see Grandpa respond combatively as he had with members of our family who had tried to help before. We could see Grandpa was comfortable with Gary—even talking and laughing with him on days he was lucid—which eased our hearts and minds during a tough time. We could breathe again, and we knew he was getting the care he needed.
Though Grandpa had been declining steadily, his death came suddenly and unexpectedly. But on the day of his funeral, shortly after the viewing hours had started, Gary had slipped in quietly. When we turned around and saw him there—with tears in his eyes—we were so moved. Though we only knew him for a brief time, Gary played an essential and unforgettable role in our family: bringing dignity to Grandpa's daily routines and peace of mind to us.
Being There When You Can’t
“Hiring a professional caregiver can be scary because you are trusting someone to take care of your loved one when you're not there,” says Cathy Sikorski, an author, humorist, and elder law attorney, who in the last 25 years, has cared for seven different family members and friends. “But there was no way I could do what needed to be done for my loved one either regarding time, or my skill set," she says.
Cathy still keeps in touch with Tracy and Denise, the professional caregivers who became very close to the family when Cathy and her care recipient needed them most. “They were dedicated to my loved one. They would go above and beyond what their work required to make sure he was cared for,” she says.
But perhaps the most important thing these caregivers did, beyond the peace of mind they provided for Cathy? "They got to KNOW my caree—his needs and quirks—which was not only kind but was invaluable in medical crises. And they were just as heartbroken when he passed away and our journey together ended,” Cathy says.
Special Treatment: A Birthday Surprise
A few years after my grandfather passed away, my grandmother had a stroke. She was never the same, although she was still able to live at home—with some support—for several years more.
We found that Grandma seemed to enjoy the extra attention and care during her hospital stays following the first stroke. When it became evident that she needed more support at home than members of our family could provide, we brought in home care. And while it’s always an adjustment having a stranger come into your home, over time, we could see how Grandma looked forward to the days the professional caregivers were scheduled to visit. Sometimes, she even seemed disappointed when a family member showed up instead!
One of my fondest memories of a professional caregiver going the extra mile for my grandmother was on her 90th birthday. The night before, after getting Grandma into bed, she had decorated her living room with streamers, balloons, and banners. Grandma deemed it “her best birthday ever.” The joy on her face and the feeling of being loved and appreciated by someone who cared for her but was not related to her? It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
The “Other Woman”
Amie McGraham’s mother lives alone—and 3,000 miles away. She also has Alzheimer’s.
As her only child and only remaining relative, Amie has cared for her mother following the death of her husband (Amie’s father)—flying out to her mother’s home to spend two months with her, then returning to her own home for two months. This pattern repeated for a while, with Amie’s mother managing fairly well this way. Until last summer.
"On the surface, it was picture perfect: ice cream cones and beach picnics,” Amie recalls. “But, like the rest of our caregiving journey, the outsides don’t match the insides.” When autumn arrived, and it was time for her to return home again, Amie realized she couldn’t leave her mom alone. “The relentlessness of Alzheimer’s was deeply rooted in our lives,” she says. “We needed a professional caregiver.”
At first, Amie’s mom insisted she could take care of herself. “And I felt guilty for leaving, yet curiously jealous,” she says.
“What if mom liked her more? What if she was a better caregiver?”
But hiring Amanda turned out to be a great decision. “She’s unflappable. Tireless. Patient,” says Amie. “We celebrate small victories together, chronicled in the purple ink of her daily log. She teaches me to stay positive. And she’s given us peace of mind.”
From the Other Side: Being Aware to Provide Better Care
Cathy Braxton has been a professional caregiver for several families. In her experience, she’s discovered there are marked differences when the “employers” treat you as extended family, when you feel welcome in the home and not like an invasive imposter. “The entire dynamic of care becomes a profoundly different experience, not only for me as the caregiver, but more importantly, for the one being cared for," she says.
For Cathy, four main principles make the difference in making a home care relationship work—and even better, to thrive and flourish:
1. Mutual Trust
“When I have worked for families that instill trust in my capabilities, I feel like a part of the team,” Cathy explains. “Additionally, if there have been moments when I have needed to ’tap out’ due to being unsure of how to proceed. Family members that step in to assist without shame and judgment have allowed me to feel safe in learning from my mistakes.”
2. Allowing Me to Use My Strengths
“When I worked with families who appreciate my strengths and encourage me to bring them to the person I am caring for, I felt valued and beneficial,” says Cathy. When the family sees and values these unique qualities, the care-recipient benefits greatly. "Families I have worked for that demand the same caregiving approach from each of their professional caregivers has made me feel more like a ‘cog in a machine’ than like extended family,” Cathy says.
3. Relinquishing Agendas
Working within an already established family dynamic can bring up many diverging ideas and agendas, Cathy explains. But adjusting expectations when things aren't going as planned has proved invaluable to Cathy and to those for whom she's provided care. "When I can go with the flow, there is less pressure on the person I am caring for, which also relieves pressure on the family inside the home,” she says. “Staunch concepts such as ‘my way or the highway’ do not a family make.”
4. Remembering the Concept of Home
Home is a very personal place and entering someone else’s personal space to provide care naturally begins with a delicate, tenuous relationship. Keeping this “secondary awareness” of being in someone’s home has been crucial for Cathy in building meaningful, positive relationships with her carees. “Not only are you coming into a physical space loaded with deeply personal memories, but you're also coming into someone’s daily routines, preferences, habits, quirks,” says Cathy. “You’re also coming into a set of family dynamics—along with decisions and changes that brought you there—and very often, in this place, there is conflict. You’re now in a home environment where caregiving has become the new priority, which can upend everyone's comfort and preferred lifestyle.”
When professional caregivers are sensitive to these principles, care recipients are likely to be more comfortable, and maybe even vulnerable, with the caregiver—foundational elements of any strong and positive relationship. Often, care recipients censor what they say and how they feel because it is not safe to do so when other family members are around, explains Cathy. “But time free from other people can provide them with the safe space they need to vent their feelings,” she says. And this level of comfort, security, and freedom benefits everyone involved: from the person receiving care, to the family members, to the caregiver.
When you invite someone into your or a loved one’s home to provide care, treat it as a new relationship—not just a working arrangement—and be ready to find an unexpected friend.
And for more on that unexpected friendship, click here for information on companion care and how it can help your senior loved one.