Frontline Initiative: The Diverse Voices of Direct Support Professionals
Caring for My Loved Ones
Shelia and Kavita are direct support professionals (DSPs) who work together to support some of the same people at SRVS (Shelby Residential and Vocational Services) in Memphis, Tennessee. Each of them have also been primary caregivers for aging family members with chronic health issues. They discuss how they have managed these difficult caregiving experiences alongside of working as a DSP, and how that has impacted their work in direct support.
Author, Sheila Clark with Greg at the store where he works
I have worked as a DSP for 14 years at SRVS. Before this, I was a Personal Care Assistant (PCA). As a PCA, I learned how to support people with their personal care needs, such as bathing, dressing, using the bathroom, and so forth. Currently, I am a DSP and support three men at their home, and one of the gentlemen at the Superlo Foods grocery store where he works.
I have also been a caregiver for family members. First, I cared for my grandfather who had dementia, then my brother who had a stroke, and now my mom. She is going through chemo and radiation treatment for cancer. I realized that when someone has always been independent and “done for themselves,” it can be emotional when she needs to lean on someone to do day-to-day things. It was hard for them to accept help from me.
It was especially hard for my brother, who had always been a very private person. After his stroke, he needed help with more personal things, like using the bathroom or bathing. At first, he felt uncomfortable having me help him, even though I had a very close relationship with him. I was his “number one.” I was his “go-to” person to talk about things going on in his life. He knew I would keep things private. I was able to help him turn his life over to God before he transitioned [passed away]. When I supported him with personal cares, I used humor to help him feel more comfortable. Because I had work experience supporting people, I also think he felt more comfortable with me. He would not allow other family members to help.
Sheila and her mother
Say what you mean and mean what you say
Sometimes skills that I developed as a DSP help me when I care for my mom. She may have multiple things she wants to do in a day, and I may not have time to support her with all of them. I work with her to prioritize and create a schedule. It is important to her to be in charge of her day, so I have to be firm with setting boundaries and leveling expectations. I am honest with her. I didn’t used to be as direct as I am now. My mom is a take-charge type of person. She likes to be in charge. When I talk with her, I speak clearly and confidently. For example, if she has two things she wants to do in a day and I have limited time or energy, I will tell her that I only have time to do one of those things. Then I ask her to choose which one she wants to do today.
It is important to me that I don’t over-promise. I have learned that it is important to say what you mean and mean what you say. This builds trust and lets the other person know you respect them by being authentic and truthful. This rapport is so important to establish, as I have learned in my work with the people I support. It helps manage expectations, but also lets them know that I hear them. Yet each person is so different. I support them in a way that works for them. They aren’t going to change, so I have to change how I support them. This is true with the people I support at SRVS, and I found myself doing that at home also.
Having a support system at home and at work
I am not going to lie. I get tired. I have kids, too. But I am not alone. I have a support system that helps all of us. When my kids were younger, my sisters helped by taking them to or picking them up from school and other things. There is a lot to coordinate between my kids’ schedules, my work, and helping my family. But I did this out of love. I wanted my family to be able to live at home. Now that my kids are older and mom is living with me, my son helps in caregiving as well. We work together to make sure mom has what she needs. My sister helps now by coming over on Saturdays to care for mom so that I can recharge by sleeping in or go out and doing thing that I enjoy doing. I also find motivation from the people I support and my co-workers, especially Kavita. She has become a very important part of my support system. We talk about everything. Sometimes our job is like setting up dominoes. We have to be focused and work together to keep them all standing. If we quit communicating or lose our focus, the dominoes can start to fall.
Author, Kavita Horton
I come from a long line of big families. My mom had 9 brothers and sisters, and I am the youngest of 18 children. In our family, we take care of each other. I saw my mother take care of her mother to the end. When I was young, I promised my mom I would take care of her like she did her mother. For 12 years before she passed away, my mom came to live with my husband and me because of her deteriorating health. In the last few months of her life, she started to receive hospice services in our home. I could tell that she wasn’t comfortable with the hospice nurse bathing her and checking her blood pressure. I asked the nurse to show me the best way to help her so that I could do it. I was then able to take over those duties.
Only eight months after my mother passed, my sister passed away also. Now the two people I was closest to were gone. I will never forget the advice someone gave. They said, “Take that energy that you poured into your mom and sister, and share that with someone else.”
I was looking for more meaningful work
At that time, I had been working as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) in a hospital for 10 years. In a hospital, there is a revolving door of patients you only get to know over a short period of time. That wasn’t filling my cup. So, I tried working in other areas of the hospital. But still my heart was being pulled toward people outside of the hospital. That is when I found SRVS and became a DSP.
I have been a DSP and supported the same three men for over three years. One of the roles I have is to speak up for them and their wishes in situations that they may not understand. For example, when I took my mom to the doctor as she got older, she didn’t understand the terminology the medical staff used. I would ask questions and explain things to her in a way that she could understand. It is the same for the men I support. One of the men needs to watch what he eats because of his blood sugar levels. He knows that we check his blood sugar daily, but he doesn’t understand how sugary drinks and foods with carbs affect his blood sugar levels and his health. I can explain to the doctor what we are doing with meals at home. Then I listen to recommendations and help implement changes at home. I help the men I support be as healthy as possible.
The men I support know that I am here for them. Through the years, I have seen a lot of personal growth in them. I feel that my experience of taking care of family members has led me to work as a DSP. I really enjoy supporting people with all parts of their lives. I use many more skills working as a DSP compared to what I did as a CNA. As a DSP, there is so much to coordinate, like the men’s’ work schedules, appointments, and busy social lives. Time management skills are critical, as is communication.
Communication and focus are key
There are two important things that I thrive on as a DSP. The first is communication. If Shelia and I aren’t communicating clearly with each other, then things don’t go well. The men I support may also suffer from that. When Sheila and I, along with the other DSPs, are in sync with each other, it provides more stability for the men we support. Both Sheila and I know that we really need to work together to keep the men we support healthy and have meaningful lives.
We have been through a lot together the last few years. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were both working a lot of overtime. We experienced the loss of a co-worker together. Through all this we have become closer. We communicate daily and lift each other up when we need lifting.
The other thing that I can struggle with is focus. If I am distracted, I can’t do my job as well as I want. Just like with my family, I don’t want to disappoint the men I support or my co-workers. I pray during my drive to work. My prayer is, God, help me leave what is at home, at home. Whatever I experienced last night, help me to leave it there. Help me to focus on what I am going to walk into today at work. Help me to be fair to the people I support.
I would not have found this job if not for the experience of taking care of my family.
I am blessed to work with Sheila, who I also call my friend.