Spotlight on: Elizabeth Zachulski
This winter we’re casting a warm glow over Elizabeth Zachulski, Residential Manager at St Catherine’s, a Catholic Healthcare Aged Care home in Bathurst. She tells us about the power of a smile, why taking a breath is important, and of the single, essential skill every aged care worker needs.
Can you tell us a bit of the history of St Catherine’s and how it came to be the facility that it is today?
In 1966 the Sisters of Mercy Bathurst decided they needed somewhere to care for their aging sisters, a 22-bed home for the retired sisters was opened. Then a few years later they decided to open it up to lay people and expanded it into a nursing home. They then built some more beds with a dementia-specific wing and hostel area.
In 2002 Catholic Healthcare took over the management of St Catherine’s and then ultimately became responsible for it. In 2015 they decided to expand it and added new services. In April 2017 we moved to this 130-bed nursing home, which has kept us all very busy, and has been a joy for Bathurst.
What do you do in your role?
My role is the Residential Manager. This involves everything from interviewing potential residents and their families, staffing (duties), to making sure there’s salt and pepper on the table – all those sorts of things. It’s a job that embraces many things, but is still joyous.
“When people come together – that’s what I would pass as a great day.”
Describe an average day?
There hasn’t been an average day since we’ve been in this building. My day has always been busy and filled with people – staff, residents, their families, things that concern them or things they might need a hand to work through.
What is a great day?
A great day is a day when I do all those things that I’ve just said. A great day is when someone smiles at me or says thank you, or when staff is happy and I hear a happy buzz through the building. When people come together – that’s what I would pass as a great day.
What is a challenging day?
A challenging day is when I’m trying to achieve a great day. A challenging day is when residents (especially long-staying residents) or residents that are very challenging die. Assisting their families and staff manage the grief that comes from that.
While we’re here for them, over time they actually become our friends. We live and work in the one place. It’s sad to see them go. We don’t necessarily look at elderly people like it’s ‘their time’. They’re just part of our everyday. When they’re not here, our everyday is altered.
So, in the same day we can have someone passing away, and we can have another family equally as anxious to admit their (loved one). So, we have a gamut of emotions around – sadness and relief. I’m lucky that on some days we can get that to come altogether.
Why did you choose this kind of work?
I’d like to say it was a calling, but initially, it was because the hours fitted in with my own family. I’d always thought I’d be an emergency nurse, which I thought I’d be good at, but then I came to work here and I really liked it.
I found out that aged care was very challenging because when you get to that age you get lots of comorbidities, so it’s just like working in an emergency or medical ward, as everyone has a lot of problems but they often have the solution. They’ve taught me to take a breath and wait until they tell me what the solution is.
So it has been a wonderful journey for me. I’ve learnt to be the assistant carer. I used to think I was the carer of choice but now I facilitate things for people in a safe manner. I let them be and do what they want in their final chapter.
What advice would you give to others interested in this line of work?
I would ask them that if they have a kind heart, are practical and pragmatic, then this is probably the job for you.
You’ve got to be flexible, you’ve got to smile, be able to roll with the punches (as not everyone wants a hand), and to be a part of what we are – to embrace and be part of the culture.
Also, to enjoy the day! If you enjoy your day then everyone enjoys theirs.
What kinds of skills or talent does someone need for this job?
My deputy and I would often say to staff or people coming in looking for a job that if you’re kind, we can teach you the rest if they’re interested. You do have to have some kind of medical capability that you’ve got to be able to handle. Some people say they can’t handle some of the things that happen in medicine so they’d have to go and manage that. You’ve got to have a kind heart. You have to be able to talk and communicate. Predominantly, you have to be able to smile and work and be part of a team.
What is something only those in your industry would know?
That elderly people know everything. We should respect that and not try and tell them what they need or don’t need in their elderly years. It works a lot better when you just go with what they want and respect them. It’s all about dignity and respect – two ways.
We have a lot of joy in this building and in the job and that comes from discussion, communication and learning. It can be the most incredible, physical, emotional, demanding job, but then you go home with the biggest smile on your face. I’m not sure that you can get that at every job.
‘…elderly people know everything. We should respect that and not try and tell them what they need or don’t need in their elderly years.’
What role does faith play in your work?
In this building you don’t have to be Catholic to come here or work here. But we have a culture that is based on a Christian model of care.
I think in the community there is still an expectation of good care given by Catholic organisations, but I think these days people work on spirituality – whatever that might be. That might be country or western music 24 hours a day, or the soccer on SBS because that’s where your heart is. For us we are still lucky enough to have mass here for the Catholics, Anglicans or whoever wants to attend. The doors are always open and I think that brings something to us as well.
So, it doesn’t really matter. It’s about being spiritual and about accepting each person as an individual and making their final chapter as good and as lively as possible.