When Lillian Gamble left her career in Auckland as an IT Administration Manager to care for her ailing father in the Coromandel, it was a significant shift in direction. Lillian spent eleven years caring for her father and six for her mother. Then, after her father passed away, she moved from her hometown to New Plymouth for some much-needed recuperation of her own. Lillian explains, “I decided to have a couple of years off to get myself together, but that didn’t work. I just ended up on a sickness benefit.”
Seven years on, a chance for change came when Lillian enrolled in the Skills for Healthcare Level 2 training scheme delivered by Avatar Institute of Learning. The six-week course assists people who want to work in healthcare, to transition into employment. Basic skills and knowledge required for person-centred care are taught. The majority of the learning hours are completed in an aged care facility; often Maida Vale Retirement Village, where Avatar Institute of Learning is located.
Lillian had been accustomed to ongoing study within her IT career. She says, “Technology changes all the time, and you have to keep up to date.” She welcomed the new learning experience, “It was a challenge, getting your mindset back into the area of studying, but it was good. It gave me something to focus on, and working in Maida Vale Retirement Village helped in relating everything back to the learning in class. I’m a hands-on person. With the placement, I was able to get stuck in. I think it’s brilliant having the training on site.”
She also enjoyed the diverse group that she trained alongside, describing her classmates as, “All sorts of people, from all walks of life.” Joining the programme opened up new connections for her, “It has been an awesome change, and I’ve met a lot of people. I moved down here eight years ago, and not having a job or anything, I didn’t really get out and meet a lot of people. My class was a small group, and we all gelled. You form some great friendships.”
Lillian was on the skills course for only a couple of weeks when her natural attributes were noticed and she was offered employment, “My background (looking after Mum and Dad) was a good start, but I think you’ve got to have the empathy and patience. l learned those skills in IT – with computer users. You have to have patience. Although (she laughs) I’d much rather work with old people.”
After completing the skills course, Lillian was able to pathway to the New Zealand Certificate in Health and Wellbeing (Level 2) programme, also delivered by Avatar. Again, Lillian thrived in the mix of classroom and practical learning, “We had classes twice a week, and we’d get together and discuss our experiences. If we were having any issues or problems, the tutors would help us. Basically, nobody fails if they stick with it. The support is there.” Lillian has nothing but praise for the training she received at Avatar, “It’s so supportive. The tutors – Louise and Carolyn and Janet – they are just amazing and they bend over backwards to help you, and it’s just fantastic to have onsite training.” Lillian also had help from her sister, now retired from her role as a nurse in rest home care, “I used to phone her a lot and get her advice. She enjoyed passing on her knowledge.”
Now qualified and firmly settled in her new career, Lillian recognises that working in a rest home facility is quite different from looking after her parents at home, “At home, you only have one person to focus on, whereas here you’ve got several, so time management is important. Every day is different. You never know what you are going to walk into, from one day to the next. That’s where your observation skills come into play.”
Lillian’s introduction to healthcare coincided with the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. She says the lockdowns were particularly hard for the rest home residents because they weren’t able to see their family, and the caregivers and rest home staff become family by default.
“I go home and I have a glass of wine and reflect back and think, could I have done anything better? Sometimes – especially over the lockdown – you think, did I do enough for them? I try and always put 110% into what I do.”
There are times when working with the elderly is hard as life takes it’s natural course, “I think for me, probably the biggest challenge was losing a resident. That’s a challenge you need to overcome. It’s hard – you get attached, because they are like an extended part of your family.”
But there are plenty of light moments. In a previous life, Lillian has been involved in theatre as a sound and lighting engineer. It’s another set of skills that she brings to her role, “I love the caregiving side of it, but I also like the entertainment side of it. I like to make them laugh. I’m a bit of a clown.” On morning shifts, Lillian will sing to residents at lunchtime, and on afternoon shifts, she’ll sing to them during dinner, sometimes adding a dance to the song. “Coming in and putting smiles on their faces – just one smile a day, even – is so rewarding. I think of my parents. They were lucky enough that they didn’t have to go into a home, but if they did, I’d like someone like me to look after them.”
Lillian is very happy living and working in New Plymouth. “I came from the Coromandel, which is beautiful, but it does get busy. But New Plymouth is beautiful too. You’ve got everything. You’ve got the mountain, the sea, and not as many people.” And the return to study has certainly been positive, “The course is really worthwhile. It gives you a sense of worth.” Without having joined the course, Lillian says, she “would probably still be in a black hole.” That sense of worth is one which she projects onto the residents in her care as well, “I’ve always been interested in children and old people, and I always take note of their stories that they tell me, and their experiences, because that’s how you learn and grow. I tell a few of the residents that I’m learning from them, and I’m going to be like them when I am in a rest home.”
Now, Lillian is looking forward to continuing her education and training, to gain the New Zealand Certificate in Health and Wellbeing, Level 3, also through Avatar Institute of Learning.
“The tutors have been absolutely fantastic. They are always there for you. You can text them, call them. I still come here and ask their advice. They are a lovely bunch. I would recommend this course to anybody who is interested in it. I would say ‘go for it’. Students are given all the support they need. The rest home staff were great when I was doing my hours for the certificate before I was employed. The caregiving staff and nurses are very supportive and helpful – just fabulous.”