It takes a special kind of person to work as a live-in carer, says Sarah Van Niekerk, who has travelled half way round the world to find her vocation. She told Sheena Grant more.
For most of her life, Sarah Van Niekerk has had jobs.
But since arriving in the UK from her native South Africa earlier this year to work as a live-in carer she’s had a vocation.
Sarah’s parents emigrated from Britain before she was born (her dad worked for the merchant navy) and she’d always had a hankering to visit the country they never stopped calling ‘home’.
But it wasn’t until after she had nursed her own father through his last illness that Sarah acted on that long-held desire – and another, to say goodbye to office work and become a carer.
She began her training with Saxmundham-based Christies Care, a family-run, 24-hour live-in care provider, in February and started work in early April. Since then, she has had three clients, staying with them for varying amounts of time. Currently, she’s on a month-long stay with Mary, who has Parkinson’s disease.
“With Mary, most of what I do is about companionship, cooking, cleaning and making sure she has her medication. After the four weeks are up I will move on to work with someone else and she will have a different live-in carer before I perhaps go back to her another time.
This is something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the opportunity before. Care like this isn’t really offered in South Africa. When I lived there I worked in human resources and the company I was with was making redundancies. My parents had passed away – I had looked after them when they were ill – and I knew this was something I had always wanted to do. When I was younger I had wanted to be a doctor but it wasn’t possible, mainly for financial reasons.
I have always wanted to look after and care for people, with dignity, so I took that opportunity. I have two grown-up children, aged 20 and 23 in South Africa, and of course I miss them but I love my job here.”
After applying to Christies and going through a rigorous selection process, Sarah began her training, learning how to administer medication, lift and handle people correctly, among other things.
“In each job you go to every client has different needs and personalities. It is a case of fitting in with someone and learning how they do things and making them comfortable.
I have my own room in the client’s house and although I live-in 24 hours a day clients often want their own space. You have to get to know someone and what they want you to do. I also get a two-hour break each day, when I usually go for a walk, get some exercise or go to a cafe for a drink. When I’ve finished my four weeks with Mary I’ll be able to take some time off before I go to another client, if I want.
The people I have cared for have all been so grateful for everything you do for them and that makes the job worthwhile. To see them smiling shows how much they appreciate all that you do for them. It is lovely to see them happy. To have someone put their hand on yours and say, ‘thank you for all you do,’ lets you know that you are having a positive impact on that person’s life.
Without live-in carers the people we care for wouldn’t be able to stay in their own homes. That’s the job satisfaction for me. I learn a lot from every person, from hearing their life story and listening to them. Even when I was working in human resources I have always wanted to help people. This is an extension of that.”
Much of what drives Sarah stems from her experience when her own father was ill in the months before his death.
“In South Africa he didn’t always receive the standard of care that I thought was acceptable. It broke my heart to see that. I believe people should always be treated with dignity.
This is the first time in my life I have a job that I don’t mind going to work for. It can be daunting at first. You don’t know what to expect but you get the training and back-up you need at all times of the day or night.
You have to be a special kind of person to do this job, to have the commitment and patience that is needed but I think it is a vocation and one that doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves.”