Care workers must look after selves too

  • November 13, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - Care providers need to be animated by a deep compassion for their patients, be present in the moment but also learn to take care of themselves, says Dr. Mary Vachon.

Vachon delivered the keynote address Nov. 6 to a room of more than 60 attendees at the Practical Ethics in Home-based Care conference in honour of St. Elizabeth Health Care on its 100th anniversary. St. Elizabeth’s provides community and home care services as a charitable, not-for-profit organization.
“That’s the key thing to focus on (for) phenomenal care,” Shirlee Sharkey, president of St. Elizabeth’s, told The Catholic Register. “Sometimes we focus too much on how great the care is versus focusing on how great the staff are who provide the care, and that’s what Mary so beautifully reinforced with her personal experiences. That we have to be real with ourselves to have a real impact on people.”

Vachon, a nurse, psychotherapist, author and cancer survivor, is an international lecturer on a variety of issues related to care. She is also a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Public Health Sciences at the University of Toronto and a clinical consultant at Wellspring, which she co-founded.

As she struggled with cancer several years ago, she said she was able to reflect on the spirituality of care and how care can affect both the patient and the caregiver.

“We are transformed and they are transformed,” she said. “There can be an alchemical reaction that goes on amongst us.”

Vachon used the concept of alchemy — the pre-20th-century notion that base metals could be transformed into gold — to explain how illness and care can provide the spiritual alchemy for a person to change and enter into the “gold” state of grace. She said during her cancer treatment, she reached a point where one day, at a physical with her doctor, she had difficulty buttoning up her blouse.

“I was having problems with my fingers because of the chemotherapy and she buttoned it for me,” she said. “That was a very tender, very beautiful kind of experience, which is something that can seem to be very minor but in fact can be a very precious kind of experience.”

She said the caregiver and the patient can learn from each other, because they are joined in a special relationship.

“Good care in general is care that is given through the human relationship and the body, mind and spirit of both the patient and the caregiver are involved.”

But that care can be hindered if the caregiver does not let go of the past and brings negative feelings into the relationship. Even if the caregiver is all smiles, the patient can still pick up on the tense feelings and be negatively affected, she explained.

“Most of us, if we thought of our energy in terms of money, if we were given $100 of our energy, every day we would be spending $99 of that money on the past,” she said. “You have to ‘get over it’ and you have to show up and be present in the moment.”

She reminded everyone that even healers are in need of healing — spiritual or physical healing — and caregivers need to address that personally to do their work well.

The day-long conference also featured workshops on cross-cultural issues in home-based care, ethics and action, ethical dilemmas faced by a seniors’ mental health crisis program, spirituality, balancing the client’s needs and autonomy with family wishes and decision-making at the end of life.

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