Being an aged care worker isn't for everyone. It's a tough job mentally and physically and requires lots of emotional strength, patience, kindness and sensitivity. Reporter Jenny Ling talks to two carers at Kerikeri Retirement Village devoted to improving the lives of their residents.
Lesley Paton can instantly recall the highlight of her lengthy career in aged care.
She was sitting quietly at the bedside of an elderly resident named Nora, who she'd taken care of at Kerikeri Retirement Village for well over a decade.
The 98-year-old woman, who had never married or had children, was dying, and Paton had stayed on to comfort and reassure her.
"Just before she passed, she held my hand and she said, 'if I could pick anyone to be my daughter it would be you'. Nora was very special."
Providing support to the elderly in residential care is a tough job, and one that often goes unnoticed.
Aged care workers, also called health care assistants, need to be calm, loving, respectful and kind, while also being positive and emotionally and physically capable.
It's personal and intimate work; the bonds they form with residents are strong.
"We're looking after people sometimes for many, many years, so you do become quite close," Paton said.
"It's not like working in a hospital where people come in and get fixed up and go home.
"It can be hard, but you have to step back and appreciate that they've lived a long and fulfilled life, and this is a natural progression. But obviously there are some that you will shed a tear for."
For Paton, a carer of nearly 40 years, a simple smile and a thank you also top her list of career highlights.
A typical day as a health care assistant at Kerikeri Retirement Village sees her helping residents use the toilet, have a shower and get dressed. She brings them their food, helps them eat, cleans up after them and makes sure they've taken any medication.
"I love it when someone smiles or says thank you," Paton said.
"When you've got someone difficult who turns around and smiles and says thank you and you can see they genuinely appreciate the help you're giving, it's just great."
Originally from the United Kingdom, Paton, 54, has always been a carer. She started her career at a psychiatric hospital in Manchester when she left school as a fresh-faced 16-year-old. There, for nine years before immigrating to New Zealand with her husband and 18-month-old daughter, she worked with patients of all ages with a range of mental illnesses.
The couple initially established a fish n' chip shop in Henderson which they ran for two years before Paton left to work in a small private nursing home in Torbay. They moved to Kerikeri in 1996 where Paton took up her current role at Kerikeri Retirement Village.
She has worked in all three of the village's care departments and currently looks after 21 residents in the Paterson wing, a rest home where residents can live somewhat independently with cooking and cleaning provided, and care available if needed.
She is also an assessor for Career Force, the New Zealand Industry Training Organisation [ITO] which supports staff in achieving their certificate of Health and Wellbeing level 2 and 3, both nationally recognised qualifications.
Having great people skills, a good bedside manner and genuinely liking people are vital attributes for the job, she said.
"I've always loved people and wanting to help people.
"I couldn't imagine myself doing an average 9-5 job or working in a shop. It's just not me. Some people have this ideal of what it's like to be a carer; that it's all holding hands and making cups of tea. But there's a lot more to it than that."
There are 15 registered nurses and over 50 health care assistants looking after 66 residents in care at the Kerikeri Retirement Village. These include 21 residents in the Paterson rest home wing, 30 in Robinson hospital care wing, and 15 in Tui wing for residents with dementia.
Chief executive Hilary Sumpter said the staff are the "heart and soul" of the care facility.
"We couldn't operate without them, they're incredible," Sumpter said.
"They form really strong bonds with the residents they look after. They understand their backgrounds, interests and special needs. They make the place go round and make the resident's lives bearable and pleasant."
The Government's historic $2 billion pay equity settlement for the country's aged care and support workers, brought about by 2018 New Zealander of the Year Kristine Bartlett, was overdue and well deserved, Sumpter said.
Bartlett, an aged care worker from Lower Hutt, fronted union legal action on behalf of thousands of her colleagues, arguing in court that her employer TerraNova was under-paying staff because of the high per centage of female employees.
Since July 2017, when the new pay scale was brought in, 55,000 care and support workers have received pay rises of between 15 and 50 per cent.
It was touted as the biggest pay settlement "in New Zealand history" by the then Health Minister Jonathan Coleman.
"It goes someway to recognising what an incredible role they fulfil," Sumpter said.
"They do the job because they love it - they're natural carers and fulfil such a special role in our community. They're worth their weight in gold."
New Zealand's population is ageing; by 2038, around 23 per cent of the total population will be aged 65 or over, compared to 14 per cent in 2013.
The Government recognises migrant workers as a valuable part of the aged care sector in New Zealand.
Shirl Liggett moved to New Zealand from Fiji, aged 18, for a better life. Her first job was as a room maid in a five-star Auckland hotel, followed by a myriad of other jobs including supermarket checkout operator, hairdresser and cafe worker.
A move to Kerikeri in 2008 saw her become a fulltime mum to her two boys before she spotted a job at the Kerikeri Retirement Village last year.
Wanting to embark on a career that was both rewarding and more challenging than her previous jobs, she applied and is currently undertaking level 3 of a New Zealand Certificate in Health and Wellbeing.
For Liggett, the village was an "eye opener". She had never set foot in a retirement village before, it just wasn't part of her culture. But she quickly found her background to be an advantage to looking after the elderly.
"I cared for my grandparents and always had a passion for looking after older people," she said.
"In my culture we always look after older people. It's not just a job, it's giving something back to the community."
Liggett currently looks after residents in the rest home and the dementia wing. The bubbly 48-year-old admits working in the dementia wing can be challenging and was a "massive learning curve".
"Dementia patients can become frustrated if they can't do or remember something, so I always watch their body language.
"When I go there I calm myself down and go to their level. I breathe and take my time. I go into their world. You have to be gentle and quiet to work there."
Paterson wing resident Dorothy Evans, 100, said she has "nothing but praise" for aged care workers.
"I appreciate what they do for me," she said.
"It's a dedicated job. You've got to be interested in people and caring about their welfare, and most of them do."
Paton's advice for anyone thinking about becoming an aged care worker is "don't wear your heart on your sleeve".
"If you become vulnerable then you can't be there and help them," she said.
"It may sound callous, but you have to realise these people are old, they've lived their lives and they're not babies. You've got to foster their independence. If they're capable of doing things for themselves they should be allowed to.
''If you do everything for them you're taking away their independence."
Liggett goes out of her way to treat everyone as an individual, and with care and respect.
She wishes families would visit their loved ones more often and take them out when possible.
The job isn't for everybody, she said, "but if you do it, do it with all your heart".
"You have to be compassionate, down to earth and give the best care, how you would to your own parents and grandparents.
"Every day is different, and everybody is different. You have to see their needs for the day.
''I try to be kind and compassionate and treat them like my own. Sometimes you get attached to them and it really affects me when they're sick. I'm really emotional because I care for them.
''They touch your heart."
In the June 2019 quarter, there were 35,500 people employed in the aged care and residential services industry in New Zealand, according to Statistics New Zealand. Of these 13,600 were nursing support and personal care workers, 4900 were aged and disabled carers, and 3100 were registered nurses. The remaining occupations were held by people in a variety of other jobs like kitchen staff and cleaners.