‘Reflections from the other side’ – being both a nurse and a carer during the pandemic

Posted: 26/08/20

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jane’s* mother was admitted to the dementia care ward on which she works as a nurse assistant in Sunderland. She’s shared some of her experiences of being both a nurse and a carer for someone during the pandemic:

“The first night in weeks that I slept peacefully”

“I care for people with dementia all the time, but it’s so different when it’s someone you know,” Jane says.

She feels very lucky to know the place where her mother was being so well cared for when so many families have had to entrust their loved ones during the pandemic into wards or care homes that they couldn’t even enter. “The fact that I could visualise the ward she was on, where she’d be eating and sleeping, was such a comfort.

“When mum was admitted to the ward, it was actually the first night in weeks that I slept peacefully. I’ve never been so relieved – I finally knew exactly where she was, and that my team would be providing her with the highest standard of care, with the utmost love and respect.”

To prevent a conflict of interests, Jane agreed with her manager to temporarily move to work on another ward. “My managers have been absolutely brilliant throughout all of this – and they made sure I could still work somewhere on the same hospital site so that my commute didn’t change and I was in familiar surroundings.”

The staff on our dementia wards are honestly exceptional, and they treat patients like they are family.

“I felt jealous of my colleagues at times – knowing that they were on that ward with mum, spending time with her and looking after her, when I couldn’t visit her to do that myself. But it was the right thing to do; you can’t blur the professional and personal like that.

“My family couldn’t visit the ward, but I could at least sit down with them and explain exactly how things are there. I told my sisters, the staff on our dementia wards are honestly exceptional, and they treat patients like they are family.

“My mum was a nurse until she turned 70. She was such a vibrant, active woman, outstanding in her field, and very well-respected. Dementia is a cruel illness – it just eats away at all of that. But the team on the ward treated her with dignity and did whatever they could to make her feel at ease.”

Because of her dementia, and being in a medical setting, Jane’s mum thought she was back on duty teaching nursing students. Jane emphasises how well her colleagues get to know the people they care for, and how they find out how to make each patient feel safe and calm: “They gave mum little jobs to do around the ward, and treated her like she was at work rather than fighting that, telling her how well her students were doing.”

The impact of COVID-19 restrictions

No matter how difficult it was for Jane, having worked with COVID-19 patients she knew that flouting the pandemic restrictions wasn’t an option. “Even though I was working on the same site as the ward mum was staying in – sometimes I’d walk past and actually be able to hear her voice – it never even crossed my mind to break the rules by popping in and seeing her. That would just have been cruel, and put everyone at risk on my ward and hers. These restrictions are there to protect us all, and get us through this so that we can return to some kind of normality as soon as possible.”

These restrictions are there to protect us all, and get us through this so that we can return to some kind of normality as soon as possible.

Jane was used to being involved in face-to-face Multi-Disciplinary Team meetings (where different staff meet to discuss and make decisions about treatment and care options for patients) in her role as a nurse assistant. But her sisters, new to the whole process, found these especially difficult as they had to be conducted over the telephone during the pandemic. Unable to see the faces and expressions of the professionals they were talking to, Jane found that her sisters sometimes felt they couldn’t get their point across.

“I sat them down and explained to them that I know these people and that they do care so deeply about their patients,” Jane said; “it’s just that doing all this remotely is new to everyone. Those doctors and other professionals are figuring it out as they go – I know how good their ‘bedside manner’ is with people. You do just lose something over the phone.”

“Humans aren’t built to be segregated,” she points out. “It’s born into you to hug people, nurture and reassure each other by interacting physically. Not being able to do that takes such a toll on your mental health, and on our dementia patients too.

“Dementia patients need facial expressions and touch to stimulate them and help them interpret what’s going on. Masks and social distancing make an already difficult time ten times harder.”

Coronavirus has stolen precious time from our family, and thousands of others.

For Jane, the need for social distancing has been the hardest part of all. “Mum has never needed a hug more than now, and we can’t even give her one. We feel so much guilt and pain around that. Mum supported all of us, she was the pillar of strength in our family, and we can’t even offer her the same support now because of this awful virus.

“Coronavirus has stolen precious time from our family, and thousands of others. Time that we needed to spend beside our loved ones, holding their hand, reassuring them.”

Newfound empathy

Her experiences have given Jane a newfound empathy for patients’ families, now she has seen things from both sides. “Late last night we admitted someone, and her poor husband was there shouting and waving at her from across the car park – that was as close as he was allowed to come – while she was being transferred because he’d not seen her in person for two months. I know exactly what he’s going through, and it’s heart-breaking.”

“I find I have much more empathy now with families calling and checking in on their loved ones, especially when they can’t visit them in person. I just understand exactly how difficult it is, because I’m in their shoes too.”

Although she was going through a stressful time, Jane decided not to take much time off work. She explains, “Working gave me something to focus on. Especially because I knew, more than ever, how important it was for the people on the wards and their families to have plenty of staff around to deliver the care they need.

“I just want families to know that they and their loved ones aren’t alone during this awful time, even though it might feel like it at times. There are lots of staff on our wards, giving every patient the same loving care they’d give to their own family, and lots of us have been on the other side of this and know exactly what you are going through.”

*Name has been changed to protect the family’s privacy.