When Paula was studying tourism at university in Peru and later working in customer service for Aeroperú, she could hardly have imagined that in the years ahead, her life would take her to Australia and a completely different path.
She migrated to Australia in 1988 and for the past 19 years, has been working as a support worker helping others improve the quality of their lives by providing both emotional and practical support for individuals and their families.
Paula doesn’t really think of her role as work, it’s more a vocation. As she says, ‘I believe very strongly that this is what I am meant to do, at this time in my life.’
Paula’s primary motivation for beginning her career as a support worker came after the death of her parents.
I couldn’t look after my parents in their final years (because they were still living in Peru), but I decided I could be there for other people’s parents and their family members when they needed me most.
Perhaps Paula’s career change isn’t that surprising given she sees herself as an ‘absolute extension’ of her own parents and her lived experiences.
We all cared for my grandfather in his final years. Dad would return home from his job as an accountant every lunchtime, carry grandad from his bed to the bathroom and shower him. My mum would then dress grandad and I would carefully prepare and feed him his lunch – I had to take great care with this task as grandad was always so impeccably dressed.
When her grandfather eventually passed away, Paula never forgot the many ways her parents preserved his dignity, physical and emotional wellbeing right up until the end.
Although Paula says she has noticed changes in her work over the years, the core of what she does remains the same.
I let people know, that no matter what, my job is to protect the dignity of the person in my care. Sometimes it’s just about sitting next to someone, holding their hand and reassuring them that I am there for them.
One of Paula’s other key roles is to remind her clients about life’s small joys. Much has been written about the power of music and sometimes when words fail, music provides a way for a person to connect with others and engage with memories and emotions.
Just recently, Paula learned that one of her regular clients used to love singers like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. Her client had often spoken to her of the big bands and dance halls of her youth, when big bands dominated the jazz scene in Australia and around the world.
So, armed with this important information, Paula bought some CDs with this exact type of music. The result – many joyful karaoke sessions and a more engaged, happier and responsive client.
At other times, Paula has learned that the simple act of helping her clients organise their lives often helps them regain a sense of independence. From first-hand experience she argues
We all need structure in our lives and this is particularly important for people with brain injuries.
Paula just loves helping people get their lives in order and is adamant that setting up a weekly timetable outlining social activities, appointments, rest periods and rehabilitation is central to improving the cognitive and emotional challenges faced by some of her clients.
Unsurprisingly, Paula is adored by the people she supports. She still has a thank you note given to her in 2011 that she keeps on her dressing table as a daily reminder of the importance of her work. It says,
I want to take the time to let you know that you are an amazing angel. You are caring, and your professionalism is such a high standard. Never forget how much you are appreciated.
Paula loves her work and says it is a real privilege being allowed into someone’s life. Her advice to others considering this line of work is simple,
Do what you love and follow your heart; it’s not really a job being with people who need you – it’s a gift.