Work & Education

Who cares? The view from a Personal Assistant (PA)

New Disability Horizons contributor, Nichola Daunton, talks about her work as a Personal Assistant (PA) and how people’s misconceptions of the job are damaging this misrepresented sector of work and the care provided.

“My name’s Nichola and I’m a PA” doesn’t usually cut it. When people hear those two little letters they think of pampered celebrities and The Devil Wears Prada. They don’t think bed pans and personal care. So I’ve learnt, when called upon to explain my profession to strangers, that it’s best to be explicit; although by being so I’m leaving myself open to a lot of negative responses.

When I say, to someone I’ve just met, “I’m a care assistant for people with disabilities,” I often get a look that says a thousand things, none of them nice. I know they’re connecting what I’ve said with what they’ve heard in the media; that carers are migrants or unskilled workers who couldn’t find any other job. All that adds up to: “What’s a nice, well spoken woman like you doing a job like that for? Isn’t that the kind of thing we get foreigners to do these days?”

Of course not everyone reacts with such snobbery. Many people are interested and want to know more. But believe me, I have seen that look on many occasions. Due to my fear of social awkwardness, I usually end up telling them I’m also a writer, just to appease them.

But lately, instead of feeling awkward, I’ve started to feel increasingly frustrated. What if I wasn’t also a writer? Why isn’t being a carer enough? Why must I be subjected to that look?

Before I explore this further though, some context is needed regarding the types of carers that exist in Britain. I currently work as a privately employed PA, paid directly by the person whom I provide care for, working for one 48 hour shift a week. So as care work goes I have it relatively easy.

A large proportion of carers in Britain currently work for agencies, who then either employ them to work in care homes, or send them on home visits. The other main type of carer is the one that makes up the silent majority (around six million); the unpaid carer. Usually a relative or friend, they provide care to a loved one who needs it due to long term disability, illness or old age.

This group is one of the most overlooked in society, and many unpaid carers are facing health issues of their own due to the stress of having to provide care. Sadly though, unpaid carers are not the ones being discussed in the media as they need to be, it is instead the small (though clearly not small enough) minority of carers committing abuse in care homes.

So why is this abuse happening and what effect does it have on people’s already lowly opinion of carers?

As I mentioned, my job is relatively easy. But the reality for many carers, especially those in care homes, is of working incredibly long shifts, seeing a huge variety of people with differing needs and being badly paid for it. In these circumstances it becomes impossible to build relationships between carers and their client, and so there arises a distinct possibility that this will have a de-humanising affect on your work.

Of course, I am not suggesting that everyone who’s an overworked carer becomes less caring or ends up being abusive. But, it’s not hard to see what is breeding this horrific culture. So what can be done to change it?

This brings us back to that snobbish look. The unflattering truth is that many people in the UK think care is beneath them. Britain’s care sector is one of the few guaranteed to grow as the population rapidly increases and people live for longer. Increasingly though, these jobs are not being filled by British people but by migrant workers. Do not despair, I am not about to set off on a Daily Mail-style rant about foreigners coming over here and taking our jobs. But it does seem questionable that for a country with such high unemployment figures, British workers are not filling the jobs that are available to them.

So why do we see care work as such a lowly job? Other jobs such as waitressing and bar work are also badly paid, but tell someone you’re working behind a bar and they’re likely to be able to handle it, as opposed to looking shocked and managing to stutter “that must be… difficult” at you from behind their pint glass. There are two reasons for this stigma: one is fear and the other is care works links with the domestic.

Domestic work has always been undervalued. It is unseen, unpaid, and historically, it is done by women. The link between domestic and care work was highlighted in a 1998 Fawcett Society paper, Underpaid Women – Women’s Employment in Care Homes, which stated that women make up 86% of the work force in the social care sector.

Many people argue that women are ‘naturally’ more caring than men and therefore better suited to this type of work. It may seem too obvious to state, but half the people who require care in this country are male and many are likely to prefer having a male carer. The widely held belief that care work is de facto ‘women’s work’ because it is domestic is not only sexist, but is also likely to keep many men out of the care sector because they feel emasculated by such a link. As with most things, it is only through equality that stigmas will be cast aside.

By working as a PA you are helping to make a person’s life better, and as such you will rarely find a job where you are more appreciated, whatever your gender. The person you are supporting will never undervalue you, but what can be done about the rest of society?

Firstly, if we want elderly, disabled and vulnerable people to be treated with respect, then we need to start treating their carers with respect too. Of course I am not asking those who require care to start giving their staff pay rises because very few people could afford that. But the government, when and if they realise the social care system in Britain needs drastic reform, need to look at the treatment of carers and realise that if they want to put an end to abuse scandals they need to invest in them, both monetarily and by changing the public attitude towards care work.

And as for fear, whilst it is only human to avoid talking about something we’re frightened of, it is time we faced up to the fact that in all likelihood, at some point in our lives we are going to have to find care staff either for someone we love, or for ourselves. And, when that point comes, we are not going to want a stressed, unhappy and emotionally frazzled person looking after us.

By Nichola Daunton

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  1. Interesting piece. I do thing it is important to point out that not all PAs are carers – some work for clients in the workplace.

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