Sunday 26 May 2019

'I feel it's a privilege to care for the profoundly disabled' - Mum-of-two describes working in a residential care home

Karen McLoughlin (38) from Tullamore, Co Offaly, says it’s a privilege to work in a residential care home for people with intellectual disabilities

Karen McLoughlin works in a home in Tullamore caring for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Photo: Jeff Harvey
Karen McLoughlin works in a home in Tullamore caring for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Photo: Jeff Harvey

When you’re meeting people with quite profound needs, it’s quite natural to be fearful or to think “how am I going to communicate?”. I always felt at ease. I always felt I could engage with people who may have communication difficulties.

Sometimes even though there’s silence, you can interpret gestures. You can make sure your body language is open. People can tell if you’re comfortable in their presence or not. Not in a big-headed way, but I have always felt I had a lot of skills I could offer.

I work in a home with five full-time residents. It’s a mix of men and women. Their needs would be considered quite complex and they would have varying degrees of intellectual and physical disability. It’s run by the Muiríosa Foundation — it used to be called the Sisters of Charity. We are employed in the residents’ home in Tullamore. When we go there, we’re entering into their safe space. It’s where they’re meant to feel safe and comfortable and loved. It might be my place of employment but it’s also someone’s home and it’s important to keep that at the forefront of your mind.

Building up a relationship can take a long time. It can’t all come at once. Getting to know someone and them getting to know you takes time. Letting them know you are going to be a fixture in their lives and letting them know they can trust you takes time. It doesn’t happen the second you walk in the door.

Everyone can be supported to live in their own community. I’ve worked with people with complex needs over the years, but I haven’t worked with anyone who hasn’t the ability to integrate into their community to the extent that they wish to do so. Each individual has their own unique skills and abilities. Working in the community residential setting means you’re getting to know people from the minute they wake up in the morning to when they go to bed at night. You see them on all the different occasions of their lives, including birthdays and Christmas.

I know my working shift a month in advance. That’s what helps me plan things. I could be working an 8am to 8pm day shift or I could be on a sleep over shift and working from 4pm until 2pm the following day. You need to be very flexible — I love being flexible and I love the variety.

People ask: “How do you do it?” I have two children, Charlie (7) and Lainey (4), but I don’t know how people do nine to five, Monday to Friday because I couldn’t do that. My husband Joseph works in social care. He works with people with disabilities as well. He understands my need to be flexible because he has that too. My sister Regina does my childminding. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to do a job I love so much.

The shifts are 12 hours, but they don’t feel long. They fly in. Every day is different. Our day involves supporting people with their personal care needs and people require different levels of support. We assess each individual on the day in terms of their health and well-being. Once their health needs are met, the good stuff comes after that. There’s a huge amount of out and about — much more than people would understand.

We go out to everything. We’re going out to the GP, the hairdresser, the dentist or to a complimentary reflexology treatment. Rather than bringing in the suppliers of these services, which would have happened a couple of decades ago, we go out. They’re eating out socially and collecting their own medication in the pharmacy and using the local swimming pool and library. We don’t bring in services anymore because it goes against the whole idea of living out in the community.

It’s about empowering people to be out there and active participants in their own community. They have a lot to offer and for others see the value of what they can contribute to society is really important.

You get to know the residents very well. It’s always professional, but you become like a confidante. You’re hoping people will feel so comfortable in your presence that they will let their true personality shine. You hope they can come to you with any concerns they might have — it’s part of our role to make sure people are happy.

We have to build up huge relationships with family members too. They are entrusting us with the care of their most loved relatives. Having an open-door policy and letting them know they can visit or pop in at any time is really important. It’s like me with my family — they can come and visit me any time.

I love going to work and no two days are the same. I love the team work with colleagues — we’re all working together. We have the common goal that we are there to enhance the quality of life of the people we’re working with. There’s a real feel-good factor. I get a lot of personal rewards from my job. You go home feeling you’ve made a difference.

We’re employed in the disability sector to support and protect the people who are most vulnerable in society. When you hear of incidents where someone has taken advantage of that vulnerability, I think “how did they end up working in this sector?”. It’s sickening.

You hear the stories and you see the evidence in Prime Time programmes — it’s so disheartening. While I take these on board, I don’t let them change my approach to my job. I try to promote a positive public perception of not just my role, but of the individuals that we support.

At times, I would almost feel embarrassed when you have all these allegations made against other organisations in the disability sector. But then I narrow it down and take it back to my own job and my own organisation. I don’t let it affect my day-to-day job in a negative way. I think it makes me even more enthusiastic to go out and promote the positive side of it.

I come home from work feeling good about myself. It might be as simple as helping someone take a shower. I can tell they feel so much better because of that half hour I spent helping them with their intimate care needs. I get a lovely feeling from that.

I feel very lucky to be in the sector I’m in. I feel it’s a privilege.

In conversation with Kathy Donaghy

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