When I started this blog almost a year ago, I knew I would write about disability. I had no idea my posts about my reality would be eye-opening for so many readers. I appreciate those who have told me something I wrote caused them to think differently or observe something with new understanding. Today, I am taking a deep breath and sharing a lengthy post about recent events in my world – explaining why the past few months have been difficult. I tend not to share this part of my reality widely, so this is a big step for me. If you read the entire post and feel a need to comment, please be kind with your words.
My disability requires me to rely on others to help me perform everyday tasks. I use a consumer directed program for home care, rather than rely on an agency to staff my needs. This comes with the responsibility of recruiting, hiring, training, and managing my own staff. It is work, and I know I could give up that work and control to let an agency manage that part of my life for me. But I have yet to find an agency that can guarantee me coverage at the hours I need, for the shifts I require. Everyone I know who uses an agency has moments when they have to phone friends and family for back up assistance because an agency is unable to get staff to their house in a timely manner when someone has called out due to illness or emergency. Plus, I like the control of knowing who is coming into my house and when. How would you feel if a complete stranger walked into your home tomorrow morning to help you get out of bed and into the shower?
I have managed a team of Personal Assistants (PAs) for eight years and usually have 12-14 staff at any given time. Three are out of town PAs who are either in other locations I visit frequently or they only work with me when I travel. Five are my ‘regulars’ who are scheduled for various shifts throughout the week. The rest are back-ups, who get called upon to cover illness, vacations or instances when my regular PAs need time off. These dedicated and caring women make my active life possible.
Occasionally, I need to call upon my friends and family to help me manage gaps when a PA calls out sick or I can’t find a back up PA from my list of staff. Most of my friends who use home care dislike having to do this, even though we are eternally grateful for those in our circles of support who help us when we are in need. But none of us like being a burden. And even though my sisters and friends never make me feel as if I am a burden on them, I hate having to disrupt their busy lives so I can go pee. Or shower. Or get into bed. Or eat. Or get my laundry done. Or anything!
I have staff for that! I have used that explanation for years when people ask me how I “cope.”
Except – for most of the past three months, I have not had staff.
Since I returned from Australia at the end of March, my personal care schedule has taken a beating for many reasons. One Personal Assistant (PA) had to take early maternity leave due to complications with her pregnancy (she’s fine, and her new baby boy is also fine). Another had to have foot surgery. One PA had to take personal leave because of the unexpected death of her son. Another one moved. My primary weekend PA got a better paying job and gave her notice. My team was falling apart.
I started recruiting new staff back in mid-April, and began interviewing candidates in early May. I hired two women I thought would be good. I fired one when she called out on multiple occasions within a few hours of her shift. Then the other quit just as I was starting to feel comfortable with her.
I continued recruiting and interviewing, praying some good candidates would come my way before my friends and sisters became sick of me calling to ask for help. I did my best to maintain my regular schedule, thankful for an employer who understood my situation and granted me flexibility. I ran away to my sister Caroline’s house a few times because it was easier than trying to find coverage for holiday weekends. I had a wheelchair emergency. I used a glass of wine more nights than I should have to take the edge off my frustrations.
My regular staff (those still working) were patient, taking on as many extra shifts as they could given their other commitments. Thank goodness for Tina, who made sure I got out of bed every morning for work. I have always said the right morning PA makes all the difference in the world and Tina has been a blessing in my world for the past two years. No matter what happened the past three months, I never had to worry about whether or not I would be getting out of bed on a weekday morning. Unless you have had that particular stress in your life, I don’t know if I can adequately explain what it is like to wake up and not know how you will get to a toilet, much less get dressed and out the door. Sally came running whenever I called, even in the middle of her own family crisis. Sarah and Ronda filled in whenever they could as well, despite sometimes having health issues of their own.
People use the phrase “it takes a village” in relation to raising a child, meaning a communal effort is required. The same might be applied to my life. It takes a team of paid staff, caring friends and family, and kind neighbors to maintain my independent lifestyle in the community where I belong. Without the “village” I have curated over the years, I would not be able to function as I do.
How do I know this? I know this because when I did not have a complete team of PAs, this is what life looked like:
- I did not socialize with friends in person. During the week, I went to work and then came home. I didn’t go out with friends. I tried not to schedule anything after 6:00 PM. I didn’t always know how or when I would be going to the bathroom and going to bed, so I had to be available whenever I could find someone to help me rather than at the time of my choosing. I am an extrovert and recharge by spending time with others. It has been a long four months, especially dealing with the blues after returning home from Australia and finding my apartment a mess.
- I did not cook as much during the week, because I did not always have people to help me make dinner. So, I ate more prepackaged meals and frequented more restaurants. This is more expensive than cooking yourself, and not as healthy.
- I did clean out my freezer! How long has that container of chili been in the freezer? I don’t know – but I’m hungry and I can put it in the microwave without assistance. Dinner!
- I wore clothes from the back of my closet some days because laundry wasn’t done. Sometimes I found someone who was available to help me go to the bathroom but they couldn’t stay long enough to help me do laundry. I know the reason I am hesitant to get rid of clothing is because I remember the days (back when I was still able to do my own laundry) when it was easier to just go buy a new skirt and underwear rather than expend the energy to do laundry. Even though I’ve weeded out my clothes three times within the past year, I can still go for almost three weeks without needing to do laundry, never repeat an outfit, and still have clean underwear. Old habits die hard.
- I did not volunteer or complete service projects with my Rotary Club. The Rotary motto is “Service Above Self” which is difficult, almost impossible, to put into practice when you are focused on keeping your “Self” functioning.
Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs proposes if our basic needs for survival, such as physiological and safety needs, are not met, humans cannot reach self-actualization. While struggling to ensure coverage for my basic needs, I was content just maintaining employment so I could keep a roof over my head. Forget about self-actualization! Finding fulfillment and achieving my purpose (whatever that may be) were not even considerations. I was happy just to show up.
I am excited to report I have hired new PAs and for the first time in months, I have a complete team and feel as if I am back to living my life again – the way I want to live it, when I want to live it, how I want to live it. I have time to focus on goals and future projects. I am writing more and my writing is less negative. I even manage to crochet more days than not. I’m still not consistent on 15 minutes of crochet per day as I pledged, but I am getting better.
To everyone who listened to me whine and complain for months about the difficulty finding good staff, thank you for letting me vent. Friends and family who helped – your assistance quite literally made it possible for me to make it through the weeks with my physical health intact. I did not get sick, or develop injuries or skin breakdowns.
Home care is a basic need, just like shelter and food. Those who work as PAs or home health staff deserve credit for the crucial tasks they perform. I wish I could compensate my staff with higher wages, but because I rely on a publicly funded program (Medicaid) I have very little control over their salary. So, I continue to join others who educate legislators and advocate for increased reimbursement rates.
Sharing my experiences with others has made me realize the value in continuing to write about them on my blog. I am not the only one reliant on these services. As long as I have a voice, and a platform (modest though it may be), I will continue to use it to inform others. If you live long enough, you or someone you know will need these services too. And you will be glad to have an ally who is not so afraid to tell it like it is.