My heart is in care

April 6 2023

With a recruitment crisis hitting the care sector, we talk to Livability staff about what it’s like working in care. First up in our series of three blogs is Debbie Turkington, who manages a Livability supported living service in Northern Ireland.

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Debbie, where do you work and how many people with disabilities do you support?

I’m a service delivery lead for our North Down and Ards services, supporting 14 people with a range of disabilities, with a team of 25 staff.

When did you start to work in care?

When I left school at 16. I worked for an agency in hospitals and nursing homes and would keep finding myself drifting towards caring for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Over the years, when I had three young children, I worked nights, which worked really well because their dad worked days. I slept during the day when they were in nursery and we all had dinner together. I had some time out at one point but I missed care so much, I went back after two years. If your heart’s in it, your heart’s in it!

How did your career develop?

For years, I was an enabling support worker and in my own time, did an access science course at my local college, two nights a week.  I actually applied to uni and was offered a place but when it came to it, I didn’t want to leave my care work. I spoke to my manager at Livability and she advised me to follow my heart and gain qualifications in the care sector. I wanted to be in the position where I could make the decisions which would improve the daily lives of the people we support. I wanted to do it for them. From there, I became acting deputy manager when we had a big gap in staffing. I also did an admin job at the service for a while, to learn how it worked and I have to say – I still love drawing up a good rota! When a deputy manager role at North Downs came up, our regional manager Stuart Dryden encouraged me to apply. I was a bit hesitant but he was like ‘You’re the one who wants the opportunity – go home and think about it’. I did and realised he was right. If it hadn’t been for his and my manager Jill’s encouragement,  I wouldn’t have been given that chance.

How would you describe your management style?

My approach is ‘I’m with you, not above you’. Yes, I have more responsibility but I’m not afraid to go on the floor and do different tasks. I actually enjoy getting stuck in. When I got this job, there was a lot of pressure on the team because we were short-staffed and some relationships with the families of the people we support had broken down. We’ve turned that around, so much so that one family has been so kind and treated everyone, staff and the people we support, to a Christmas lunch out and even invited staff to a very special fundraising night in memory of a family member. I really go on about positivity – in fact, the staff have said to me: ‘If you say “positive” one more time …!’ But they put their feelings aside when they come into work, put a smile on their face and if there’s an issue, we look at how we can fix it.

What difference are you making to disabled people?

There’s so much – we try to make holidays and trips happen whenever possible. Now there are more ‘changing places’ toilets in Northern Ireland, with proper hoists, it means we can go on longer trips, like a 200-mile round trip we did, taking people to Dublin Zoo. They really, really loved it. On Good Friday, we’re taking the ferry across the lough to Newcastle [in Northern Ireland] for egg painting and egg rolling and fish and chips afterwards. It’s about the families too; in May, we will start to provide six hours of support, three days per week to the wife of a disabled man, which she says will make a huge difference to her as she literally cannot leave his side. When we can, we try to offer families breaks, when we can provide the care, and they can perhaps get away. I’ve never seen a dad as excited in my life as when we could support his son while he and his wife had a break.  For Mother’s Day recently, we secretly made candles with the people we support, as gifts, and one mum cried when she received something her son had made.

How are the people you support viewed in the local community?

I’m glad to say that attitudes to disability are changing a lot. Years ago, when I went out with people in wheelchairs, others would cross the road to avoid them. But in the past couple of years, they now stop and talk to disabled people, speaking directly to them. Now it’s quicker to list who the people we support don’t know locally, rather than who they know! I’d say a lot of barriers have been broken down and our community is so much more inclusive.

What would you say to someone thinking about joining Livability as an enabling support worker?

I wish people would come and try it for a day or two and see that supported living is not about bum-wiping, which is what a lot of people think! It’s not a degrading job. I want them to see the opportunity and joy you can bring to someone’s life, and to your own too. There’s so much satisfaction when you enable someone to achieve a goal and see the smile on their face, even when they make the smallest steps.

What do you do outside work, Debbie?

Well, I have six children, five dogs and a cat! Family time is important and we enjoy days out together.

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