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Real Voices: A carer shares her pandemic experience

Laura has been working as a carer for 18 years. In this week’s Real Voices, she shares her experience of working in a care home owned by Sheffield-based Palms Row Health Care during the pandemic, and the misconceptions around the job that carers do.

I always knew that I wanted to be a carer. I had relatives who were nurses so I understood a little of what I was getting into. That being said, 18 years ago when I first started, the care home sector was a completely different kettle of fish to how it is now. It wasn’t as busy, and the types of people who were in care then would probably be looked after at home now, whereas the people who are in care homes now would probably have been in hospices or hospitals then. The type of care that we’re required to do has completely changed.

The pandemic was a deeply tough time for carers and care homes, especially during the first wave. It was incredibly difficult as we had limited knowledge of the virus. Staff and residents were very fearful, so it was important to try to stay positive and digest new information as it came in to help us deal with the situation appropriately. We lost a lot of residents who passed away from the virus. Care homes at the beginning of the pandemic were ignored until it came to light,eventually, how badly we were being affected. The media did help to spread the word about how much we had been left to deal with on our own.

As time has gone on, different challenges have come up. We’re definitely still feeling the effects of the pandemic now. There are staffing issues as lots of people have left the sector due to the sheer stress and trauma of lockdown. We’ve never seen as much death in this line of work as we did during that time. Normally when someone passes away in a care home, it’s a controlled situation and we can prepare ourselves and their loved ones properly, and make sure that they have as peaceful and comfortable a death as possible. But obviously during lockdown families and loved ones couldn’t be there with them. Residents were contracting a virus that we knew very little about, so there was a lot of fear as carers, as we didn’t want to put our families in danger by passing it on. It was really hard to manage the people who were ill and dying. We were doing our best to keep them comfortable, but we were limited. It’s horrifying to have to watch so many die like that, so a lot of staff just weren’t able to cope mentally, and they left the sector.

Currently, there’s a real struggle to recruit replacements. When we do hire new staff, we tend to have to hire inexperienced people, so it’s very challenging as we have to feed them as much information as possible in a short time because they don’t have the background in care. The staff who have lasted through the pandemic are exhausted and still feel the mental effects that this very stressful and traumatising situation has had on them. New staff definitely get a shock when they start working as a carer. We try to be as robust and frank as possible during the interview stages to prepare new staff for the realities of this job, but you don’t understand what it’s like until you experience it. That’s reflected in our rates of retention currently. We have new staff who leave after a few shifts because they can’t cope with it. Many have no idea how busy it is, as you often have 12 hour shifts where you’re rushed off your feet the entire time. I think new staff also don’t expect the emotional side of this job. You bond with the residents, and when one of them becomes ill or passes away you are personally affected because you’re so passionate about your work. I don’t think people understand how emotionally and physically demanding it is.