Faith Mwangi is from Kenya, and moved to the UK in February this year for her postgraduate studies. She is reading her MSc in Sustainable Development from the University of Sussex. Apart from studies, she has also been working part-time as a domiciliary care worker for the past six months. Faith worked an 8-hour night shift, two nights a week (9pm/10pm till 6am).
When Faith moved to the UK for her Masters, one of the things she wanted to do in that year was to undertake a job. “There are many jobs that I could have done, but I felt specifically called to do care work. In this decade of my life, I feel that God is calling me to serve others. So, I started applying and after two months, I found a job as a carer.”
This is her story.
In my first assignment, I had the privilege of taking care of Susan* who needed end-of-life care. To be very honest, initially, I found care work extremely difficult. It was such a new experience to face someone you know is facing imminent death.
I had to learn very quickly, how to work very well. You have to know what you are doing so that you don’t hurt the person you’re caring for. In this situation, because Susan had been bed-bound for so long, any touch would hurt her. Initially, I thought I was hurting her each time she cried out. It was counter-intuitive, that even if she was crying out, in that situation she was in, I was helping her and wasn’t hurting her.
Also, I was not used to working night shifts. The body is meant to sleep at night, and staying up affects the psyche. It was not easy and required willpower. I was working two nights a week, and after my night shifts, I couldn’t sleep during the day. This experience gave me a newfound respect for the caregivers who have done this for years – nurses, doctors, etc.
However, the experience was also very profound for me. It put things into perspective. Suddenly, my problems became very small. It made me consider ‘what are the things that are most important? What do I want to have achieved in life, when it is my time on the deathbed?’ It made me think about death, as a theme. And reflect on our society’s approach to death, and how we tend to avoid death as a topic. Also, what does it mean for the families who are caring for loved ones facing death? How can we support them during this very difficult period?
Susan’s son lived nearby. He came by often to take care of his mom. It was amazing to see the love between them. It was a love so amazing - it was tangible. Without saying it in words, just observing the way he took care of his mother, I could see that this man loved his mother so much. For me, in this situation, I found an answer to a question I had been searching for. I had been asking ‘Where is God in this situation?’ And I found my answer, in the home of this lady, in the love between this mother and son that is so amazing - I found God.
The beauty of the human spirit when faced with difficulties
My second assignment was with Lily* who has gotten to a stage in life where she's no longer as mobile as she used to be. She was once the life of the party, and she loved her outings. But now she can no longer do that. She is confined to her home. And not only that, but she can’t speak very well due to her condition which makes it difficult for her to speak. Before this, she was a great storyteller.
Despite going through all these setbacks, she has a positive mentality that ‘I’m not a victim. I’m not defeated. I’m not done yet.’ She has created her personal conservation garden for the animals in the neighbourhood. She feeds ‘fine dining’ to the cats, the birds, and the foxes. The garden is just beautiful!
Even now, in Lily’s current condition, she makes a positive contribution in a way that she can. And it’s a contribution that goes beyond just her. It goes to the environment. It goes to the neighbourhood. When I visit her home and garden, I notice ‘oh, the birds love it here. The foxes come to visit her.’ It is such a beautiful thing to see.
Thoughts on care
Each person has their unique reason as to why they need care. You have to approach care in a very individualistic manner. Respect the individualism of the person. You have to remember that even though they need help, it doesn’t reduce their human capacity. It’s very difficult for a grown-up to ask for help, especially with the most basic things in life: help getting out of bed, bringing them things, feeding them. It’s difficult for them to feel that they are slowly losing their independence and freedom. You have to remember, that given the choice, they would rather be doing all these things for themselves.
When caring for others, you also have to remember to care for yourself. It’s so important to seek a support system. Certain experiences such as dealing with death can be very traumatic, and it can affect your mental health. It was very helpful that my office offered support to the staff. So, they would call us in for regular chats with the supervisors. The office was always open for us to talk to someone, in case we wanted to.
I initially found care work difficult. But after several months, having done it consistently and speaking to people who are in the care profession, it gets better and easier. Doing care work has changed the way I approach life. It has influenced me profoundly.
The best part about care is becoming friends with the people I was taking care of. I’ve made connections that I would not expect, that go beyond the usual barriers of society. For example, age or background. I’m from Kenya, but I’ve built a connection with a 70-year-old English lady based on the simple things in life. It’s about getting to know the person and seeing the beauty of every individual.
Care work in the UK
There is such an urgent need for care work in our society at the moment. Whether it is in foster care, companion care, domiciliary care, or in nursing homes, etc. It would be an interesting aspect for young people to consider whether they could do part-time care work for a couple of years? It’s not even necessary to take a gap year, because it’s so flexible that you could work part-time by fitting a few hours of your day/week.
This is such meaningful work that would have such a tangible impact on our lives and the lives of others around us. Doing care work has helped me grow so much as a person. It instilled values and helped me grow on the inside, in a way that I haven’t before. Throughout the past six months, this experience has accelerated my personal development and made me see life differently. It has influenced my outlook on life. For instance, I am now very tolerant of many different people. Instead of approaching people with judgement, I have now learnt to stop and consider previous life circumstances that may have led them to where they are today. When you start with an open heart and understanding, it changes many things.
Caring starts at home – in the family
I’ve had the joy of being in a very large family in Kenya. From my personal experience, I feel that the most integral part of the care profession is taught in the right family atmosphere. For example, instilling respect for others, not being selfish, considering other people’s needs, which was a basic thing that we learnt in the home environment. When you have dinner, and there are six of you in the family, and there are only four sausages, you learn to share and not put all the sausages on your plate.
It's mostly about love and compassion, that you think of the other person and try to put yourself in their shoes. Empathy and caring for others is something that I learnt at home, when I saw my mom taking care of my siblings. That motherly affection I saw modelled in her behaviour is how I learnt to love service. So, I feel that learning ‘how to care’ starts from the home. And it comes not from being told what to do, but it’s in the everyday quiet examples of how our parents do things. This spirit of self-giving is what I learnt from my mother.
So, care happens very naturally. I’m the eldest in my family. So, when my parents are not at home, I naturally assume care for my brothers, making sure that they’ve eaten, if it’s raining not to be in the rain, to wear a jumper when it’s cold, etc. I never thought of all these things as care. It just happened naturally as a way of showing love.
I used to visit my grandmother, and I would take some food with me, clean the house, cook for her and leave her with food. If I spent three hours with her just talking, that is companion care. I’m keeping her company. And keeping her company is very important. It’s something I’ve noticed, among all the things that people most want in domiciliary care - it’s companionship. It’s for you to sit down and watch a movie with them, for you to visit your grandma on a Sunday afternoon, so she has company. That’s what people really want, what the human spirit yearns for – to have company, to be in the setting of family or community. So, care comes very naturally from the home, from the family.
I would also help my grandparents run errands, accompanying them to the bank, to the hospital. I look back to those years with such fond memories - my grandmother teaching me how to dance, the songs from her childhood, her story of how she met my grandfather. I learnt so much about history and her life story. All these things I got to know, and all these memories I got to form, because I was her companion and had the opportunity to be there to listen. I discovered that my grandmother is an excellent dancer. She would tell me: ‘You can’t dance like that, you need to feel the music.’ So, I asked her to demonstrate and when she did, I was blown away. She was such an amazing dancer! It made me stop and think, ‘my grandmother was once a young girl. She had her love story and romance.’ The cycle of life is just incredible!
*Names have been changed