The last time I’d called the Samaritans, I was a teenager. I’d had a row with my mum and felt like jumping in the canal. I called again this spring, 27 years later. It was 2am and I hadn’t slept properly for weeks.
I’d been kept awake sobbing and worrying about residents at the care home where I work. I was due on shift at 7am and was anxious I wouldn’t make it.
I was hesitant, ready to put the phone down, unsure of whether I should even be calling. A man called Dan picked up and immediately connected with me.
I’ve been a care worker at the same home for more than six years, on and off, and had been working solidly for the previous four weeks. My usual pattern is 52 hours in one week and then a week off. But I worked extra shifts during my break week because 80% of my colleagues and managers were off sick or self-isolating. Three were in hospital seriously ill.
My role is to meet residents’ complex needs, including walking, eating, toileting and administering medicines. It’s responsible, skilled work and I have had extensive training. Even though we recently received a pay rise, I take home less than £8.80 an hour.
The coronavirus situation has brought on sheer panic, emotional fallout and stress. I’m a single mum and my graduate daughter lives in London in a shared house. I am worried sick about her. My family treat me with bouts of sympathy, dinners delivered to a patio table and fear because of my job. I’ve had a tearful conversation with my older sister giving her my death instructions. At 45, I’m facing my own mortality for just above a minimum wage.
On the phone, Dan enabled me to reflect on my feelings of anxiety and irrational thoughts. My very dedicated colleagues and I have worked so hard and felt unprepared for the suffering, grief and mental effect the pandemic has had on us. The virus was in our building. We were put on lockdown.
Rachel Dealtry: ‘I’ve lost my personality and humour behind the mask.’A resident’s temperature spiked and they died the next day. The corridor by his room was cordoned off and two men in full body suits took him away. This wasn’t the typical pre-Covid jolly tea and biscuit shift I am used to.
We wear masks, gloves and visors. I’ve lost my personality and humour behind the mask. I can’t comfort people or be comforted with skin to skin contact. I’m suffocating, hot, bothered and agitated, and it’s scary – for me and the residents. At home, I put on the news to be confronted with escalating uncertainty.
Many of my colleagues have been sick. We work in a danger zone. Some residents have died in hospital, others in the home. Handovers are tragic.
We’re told we are unsung heroes, but we feel manipulated and scared.
I stayed on after shift and sat with a dying woman. Through my gloved hand I held hers and tried to channel all the love a human being can send another. When I came back on shift the next day, the cleaner told me she had died.
I told Dan: “I’m bewildered and angry. How can the government pay people 80% of their wages to sit in the garden? What about us? We are still going to work and it’s horrendous.”
When my manager returned from sick leave, she told me she was not only very poorly, but felt so guilty about the residents and staff that she could not rest properly.
Dan helped me realise that I needed to take some time out from work. I wasn’t the only one burnt out. Several of my colleagues have been too. My manager organised a memorial for the residents who have died and asked me to write and read a poem. We lit candles outside the care home for them. After a week off, I returned to work. It’s hard to stay away when you know people need you.
Care workers like me are beyond the periphery of the NHS. We work in privately run, or not for profit organisations. There are few state run homes left. We look after society’s most vulnerable; they need supporting with respect, love and dignity.
It is absolutely unforgivable that we were not given priority and adequate preparation for this crisis. People doing the job I do for the money I am paid should never have been put in this situation.
Coronavirus may be temporarily easing but now is not the time to rest. Inside care homes, life has changed. If residents are admitted from hospital, they spend two weeks’ isolation in their room. If they show symptoms, they must be confined to their room for two weeks. Communal rooms are sticking to social distancing measures, so there is no sense of kinship. Residents are looked after by predominantly women in masks. Relatives can only visit outside for short periods wearing full personal protective equipment.
I love the people I look after but if things do not change fast, I for one will look for work outside this sector.
The government must regulate our skills, acknowledge them and pay us properly. It must also apologise for the massive catastrophe of overlooking our sector.
If things do not change, the staffing issues will worsen. That’s not good for us or those we are trying to look after.
When I reflect on my experience, I feel very angry and disappointed that social care was not given priority. It’s too late to turn back the clock, but it’s not too late to make this tragedy positively affect the future of the sector.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.