For those of us who have worked in care, there are always a few people in our career who will hold a special place in our hearts. Whilst a lot of the mantras about good professional practice suggest we mustn’t have ‘favourites’, it is almost impossible not to become more attached to individuals to whom we feel some unique connection.
From my first job delivering Roberts Radio batteries to older blind people in Greenwich London over 30 years ago, I can remember Eileen, still elegant and eloquent, who used to be an actress and a lovely couple George and Maude who had been married and lived in the same house for 70 years and still finished each other’s sentences. From my job as a Community Worker in Chelsea, I remember Gladys who was a secretary and came out of retirement to help me in the office, which gave her a new lease of life. Then there was Ella, who lived in the first care home I ever worked in. Ella was fiercely independent and always trying to escape. She loved cats like me and with her dementia, was constantly anxious about what had happened to her cat. Ella often asked me if she could come and live with me. I remember finding this difficult to answer. I said, “I’m not sure my partner would be too happy to have another visitor,” to which Ella replied with a twinkle in her eye, “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.” It was at that moment, I realised that Ella was probably gay and had recognised me as a kindred spirit before I had recognised her. I was only in my 20s at the time and wondered if it was appropriate for me to be open about my sexuality with someone. Did this cross professional boundaries in some way? Yet, when I did talk more openly, Ella immediately became more relaxed and talked about her ‘friend’ Annie, with whom she had lived for many years. She confided how it hadn’t always been easy as she had been in the Navy for ten years where it “wasn’t safe” for people to know. I had known Ella for about two years when I returned from a holiday and went to her room to have a chat. I was shocked to find that it wasn’t Ella in the room, but a woman called Phyllis who had recently moved into the home. Where was Ella? I found a colleague who told me that Ella had died quite suddenly from a heart attack a few days after I had gone away. I burst into tears and was quite angry with the team for not letting me know before I returned to work. The manager was sympathetic, but told me that it was probably better not to “get too close” to avoid getting hurt like this in the future.
Getting close to the people we support does involve an emotional investment and this comes with the inevitable possibility we will be hurt when they die or indeed when their dementia deteriorates, and they change. But would I put the clock back and not have enjoyed this close relationship with Ella which enriched us both? The answer is a very clear ‘No’. It is obviously not appropriate to treat people favourably on the basis that we are particularly fond of them, but there is no shame in admitting there are some people who we will always remember with love.