Peter Sluik started working at the Association “by accident.” He was looking for a new job and took a position as a group home worker for a few hours a week, not intending to devote much more time to it than that, but three years ago, work at the group home became his full time job. Peter describes the first three or four months on the job as a period of trial and error.
One of the most difficult lessons Peter learned in his first few months was that “the clients are disabled but they are not helpless.” He discovered that some clients target new staff for assistance with tasks they could easily perform on their own.
Peter remembers an early experience with one client who would pretend that she couldn’t tie her shoes. Peter helped her with the laces and he remembers that it didn’t seem an odd request to him at the time because she had problems with mobility, etc. He says he discontinued the help, though, when one day he came across her tying her own shoes without any difficulty. In his position as staff, Peter tries to encourage clients to assume responsibility for the tasks they are able to perform, rather than having to rely on others more than they need to.
Peter regards on the job training as important for learning skills but thinks that personality is the most important factor in determining success on the job. Some workers are hired with “skills on paper” and don’t last very long and there are others who are hired with no experience and do very well.
Genuine compassion and the ability to care for people are also essential to the work. Not all clients can show appreciation and some can be aggressive. Workers can’t take it personally. They need the ability to be patient, step back, and give the client some space so that difficult situations can be resolved. The first obligation of staff is to make sure the client is safe.
Peter says that working with people with mental disabilities is a unique and oftentimes unpredictable experience.
When you come to work you can never be sure what you are going to face. It could be a great day or a day when clients are in a foul mood. We try to redirect attention when things are not going well, but it doesn’t always work.
Better health care has contributed to an aging population of clients and this is an area where there is a need to have more staff available. Peter sees that this pending situation has implications when it comes to the availability of funding, already an area that is an ongoing problem where programs are concerned. Peter finds it surprising that Alberta, being such a rich province, does not make more funding available for services to the handicapped.
Highlights for Peter include what he refers to as “good days” – days when the clients are well enough to go out of the group home for a portion of the day and do something fun. He appreciates these “small victories” for clients who are living with very serious illness.
Peter’s experience with the disabled has made him more patient, as he describes it. He no longer takes his own or his family’s health for granted and he is able to consider many issues and problems of his own life with a different perspective.