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How volunteering in a flood zone gave me a new appreciation for aged care workers

Karen works in BaptistCare’s Marketing and Communications team and volunteered as part of the surge workforce to go to BaptistCare Mid Richmond centre in Coraki when the flooding occurred in early March. This is her boots-on-the-ground account of what happened.

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31 March 2022

News | Aged Care Homes

Karen works in BaptistCare’s Marketing and Communications team and volunteered as part of the surge workforce to go to BaptistCare Mid Richmond Centre in Coraki when the flooding occurred in early March. This is her boots-on-the-ground account of what happened.

Written by Karen Del Rosario

Friday the 4th of March was a surprisingly clear morning after days and days of punishing rain. Under normal circumstances I would have been enjoying my morning coffee at my desk, organising my tasks for the day. Instead, I boarded a helicopter at Grafton, headed for an aged care home in a Northern NSW flood zone.

Our BaptistCare residential aged care home in Coraki, about 25 kilometres south of Lismore, had been isolated by floodwaters for five days. Few could get in or out except for a determined care worker who paddled across on her canoe, a maintenance supervisor with his boat, and a cleaner who braved walking through the waist-deep waters. So, as well as carrying 10 willing volunteers to provide the already exhausted staff on the ground with some relief, the helicopter also delivered food supplies and diesel for the generators that continued to keep the lights on at BaptistCare Mid Richmond while the town’s electricity supply had been cut.

I should be clear, I’m not an emergency responder or an aged care worker. I work in communications. But sometimes, an alternative approach is needed in times of crisis and so when the request for help went out, I thought it would be a good opportunity to understand the breadth of the situation on the ground and offer any support I could.

Day one

The helicopter landed on a dry patch of grass on the golf course next to the centre. The floodwaters surrounding us were only about 100m away and we were ushered into a waiting ute to take us the 50 metres to the entrance of the home as the ground was too muddy and wet to walk on.

After producing a negative rapid antigen test result, we were given a tour of the centre and had our pick of sleeping spots on mattresses in staff rooms, storage rooms and linen cupboards. Aged care homes aren’t designed to house workers, so we had to make do with the space we had.

We then jumped into lunch service. Helen, a care worker, had taken over the kitchen since the chef couldn’t get through the floodwaters. She was doing what she could with the limited food supply we had, cooking up frozen meals for both staff and residents, while we served up plates, delivered meal trays and offered coffee and tea.

That whole first day was a baptism of fire, full of new experiences for the volunteer team who were all desk workers, or had worked in aged care years ago. We needed, and were provided with training in a number of areas. There were times when it felt more like we were hindering than helping. Within the first day we were changing continence pads, using lifters, and emptying catheters. After seeing the residents to bed that evening, we laid out mattresses looking forward to much-needed rest, which would be occasionally interrupted by frogs who had jumped through open windows.

Finding a rhythm

After a few days we were able to find a rhythm. We were given a wing each to take care of with approximately eight residents to manage and were all overseen by two care workers and a nurse who had been on site, working around the clock since the previous Sunday.

While we were there we would hear helicopters coming and going for hospital pick-ups and food donation drops. We received supplies from the ADF and some good Samaritans going door-to-door to provide various items to people in need. After two days our pantry and cool room were bursting at the seams and not wanting the excess food donations go to waste, Robyn, our returned chef, cooked an additional 200 meals for people in the evacuation centre down the road until another organisation was able to help them.

After a couple of days my knees and feet felt like they would fall off from walking up and down the corridors, checking on all the residents and helping with whatever they needed. It is amazing what aged care workers do day in and day out, never mind the floods.

I felt guilty being exhausted and run-down after only a couple of days working in these conditions when the staff at Mid Richmond had been stuck in the home doing double shifts for a week, waiting for colleagues to get through floodwaters to relieve them. Their dedication and strength through this whole ordeal has been inspiring. They were able to provide a continuity of care despite their dwindling energy levels and not knowing the full extent of the flood damage to their own homes.

Building connections

It’s not just about the practicalities of care; the showering and dressing, the feeding and support. It’s also about the personal connections these care workers build with residents over time. This was clear when some staff were desperate to return to work as soon as possible to care for the residents, despite their personal situations.

The regular check-ins, the conversations and social interactions all forged family-like bonds which every one of the volunteers experienced. One resident crocheted each one of us hats to take home with us, like a grandmother would for her own family. We were able to reintroduce some of the regular activities with music and bingo and you could see their enjoyment and their faces light up.

Kevin, a BaptistCare Chaplain from Newcastle held a Church service in the dining room on Sunday morning where many of the residents eagerly attended and were comforted by his words. One resident was so looking forward to attending that she was dressed and ready in her Sunday best, including a beautiful feathered hat, at 4am.

And then there were the residents who were struggling. I sat with a woman who had a bad turn and whose condition was deteriorating over the week. She was a religious woman and I offered to pray with her, trying to provide some form of comfort. When the roads finally allowed visitors to return, I saw the pure joy in her eyes when her loved ones entered her room and prayed with us. I saw how important social and spiritual connections were in providing comfort, love and care to these wonderful people, particularly those nearing their final moments.

A community reopening

As the rain subsided and the flood waters receded, the roads began to reopen. Relatives and staff began to make their way through to Mid Richmond. Every now and then you would see staff hugging returning colleagues and hear cries of joy and relief at seeing them at the home again. Residents were comforted by visits from their loved ones after feeling lonely and worried about them due to the radio silence. There were many emotional reunions because most people in the community had lost everything.

As more of the original Mid Richmond team returned, it was time for me and the other volunteers to head back to our desk jobs. It was so hard to say goodbye to our residents and colleagues, knowing everything they had been through and were still going through. We were all so touched when a man stood up on behalf of the residents and thanked us for the care and love we gave them throughout the week. I know we can never underestimate just how grateful the residents must be for the care workers who are by their side week in and week out, and who dedicate themselves to this job.

Now when I sit down for my morning coffee, I think of my colleagues on the frontline of our aged care homes and I think about the beautiful residents they care for. Our aged care workers are resilient, passionate and admirable people who are getting the job done in the most difficult of circumstances. They should be commended and celebrated, and we as a society should place a higher value on the incredible work they do.