Blessed with the Perils and Pitfalls of Hiring Help

"Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!" The Beatles have been in my head a lot this week. Hmmm...wonder why.

“Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!” The Beatles have been in my head a lot this week. Hmmm…wonder why.

“What do you call a stay-at-home-mom with a nanny?” “Blessed.”

That’s a joke I made up a couple of years ago when an acquaintance bad-mouthed another mom for having hired help. “I just don’t see why anyone who is at-home needs a nanny. It’s a waste of money.”

As jokes go, it’s not all that funny, but my point was—and remains– I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t hire some kind of domestic help if they could afford it. If you are criticizing someone else for having a nanny or a housekeeper or a personal shopper, your comments reek of jealousy.

Besides, I’ve recently learned that some of us have to hire help if we are to maintain any level of normalcy in our homes. In the nine months that my mother-in-law has lived with us, I’ve hired three different care-givers and today,  I hope to hire the fourth.

Before MIL moved in with us, we knew we would need help. After all, she can’t be left alone for any length of time. It would be like leaving a small child confined to a crib. What would happen if the house catches on fire? What if traffic turns a 15 minute errand into a two hour one? Basically, unless there is another adult around, I can’t leave the house, and for me, this is a big deal. I’m not a stay-at-home-mom. I’m a take-your-kids-cool-places-mom. I don’t stay home well.

My sister-in-law advised me against hiring a nurse or someone who would specifically care for MIL, but to look for someone who would cook, clean, provide childcare as needed and act as my assistant in running the household. Sure, this employee would do some granny-care on the side, but it shouldn’t be her only responsibility. This was sound advice. Past experiences with MIL had shown us that she did not like having a nurse hover by her side all day, but she was comfortable with “a maid.” She had always had a maid.

The first person I hired had cared for older individuals and done some housekeeping. She was a self-described “neat-freak” who said that cleaning a house was a great emotional outlet for her. The very opposite is true of me, and so I liked this quality. No doubt my house would have been spotless had she stuck around, but after two weeks, she quit abruptly by not showing up and then having her grown daughter call me with an excuse. Subsequent attempts to reach her were unsuccessful. Eventually, I ran into her at Walmart and she hid from me. Oh, well, all that nervous energy would have driven me crazy eventually—but I would have been crazy in a very clean house!

In hiring that first employee, I realized I had selected her too quickly and done so because she lived near my house and wouldn’t have transportation issues. Besides, her children were grown, and so a sick babysitter or a school suspension wouldn’t present a childcare crisis for her. I probably gave her an edge over other candidates based on her family situation and her proximity.

When I hired the second housekeeper, I decided that I wouldn’t take childcare and location into consideration. I would hire the most qualified candidate and trust that if she said these things weren’t an issue, they weren’t! One candidate stood out. She was Spanish-speaking, a real plus since MIL is from Ecuador, and she had cared for a dying family-member and worked as both a nanny and a housekeeper.  She was a single mother of three sons and she lived 40 miles from my house, but she said the commute wouldn’t be a problem and her childcare arrangement was solid. (Honestly, I would have never asked about these things when serving on a professional interview panel, but this is a personal job.)

Well, transportation and childcare turned out to be horrific issues! Horrific! Communication was another issue. Sometimes, she would not show up for work and call the next day with a story about her phone not working. Daily, from about 8:30 am to 10 am, I would find myself waiting for her. Is she just late? Or is she a no-show? Do I cancel my plans now? I would remain on edge until she walked through the door. This is never the ideal way to start the day.

In any other work environment, I would have fired her, but in my home, I knew she would be difficult to replace. MIL liked her. My children liked her. I liked her. More importantly, I trusted her. To have someone working in my home with my family on such a regular basis, trust is paramount. I knew this woman would never harm MIL or my children. I knew she wouldn’t steal from us. I knew she wouldn’t intentionally damage our home or other property.

Besides, even in a bad economy, people aren’t just lining up for a low-paying job that involves wiping butts and cleaning up after a messy, messy family. So, we tried working around childcare issues—she brought her youngest child to work with her. That turned out to be a disaster as MIL hurled insults in Spanish at a three-year-old. She said he was an “ugly Indian” and that he had no right to be in her house. We loaned her a car—how many housekeepers do you know who drive a Mercedes as part of their benefits package? Pretty good deal, huh?

She quit anyway. I hired the third housekeeper. This one lasted all of one day. Although I warned her that MIL could be verbally abusive, and she said that she understood that a lot of older people say hurtful things that shouldn’t be taken personally, she wasn’t up to being heckled “Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!” She worked for us for one day, and then never returned. I don’t blame her.

The second housekeeper returned. Again, we assisted her in working out the long-standing transportation and childcare issues, but in the end, she quit—again. This time, she sent me a text. “I not want to fail u. U hire someone else. God bless you and family.” That was a week and a half ago.

As truly inconvenient as it has been—I’ve had to cancel appointments and forego taking my children on outings, I know this is all for the best in the long run. Even before the third housekeeper quit, I had been thinking that because MIL’s dementia has progressed, she really does need a care-giver, and not a housekeeper. She needs someone more skilled in eldercare, and if that means paying a higher wage, but offering fewer hours in order to stay within our budget, so be it!

I can also see that I have really grown. This time when I found myself homebound, I didn’t hire anyone out of panic. I’m no longer afraid to be alone with MIL day after day. I’m not overly concerned that we will only be able to afford three days of care per week versus my ideal five. I can handle it. I can adjust my time and my goals according. This is a pretty cool acknowledgment because while I’m still not the care-giving type and it is nothing I would ever, ever want to do professionally, I know I am handling the situation remarkably well–or at least better than I did in the past.

So, I’ve spent a week interviewing and checking references while humming the Beatles’ hit “Help!” in my head. I found someone. I made her an offer. I am hoping that by the end of the day she will return my call and I will be “blessed” to have help once again.

I don’t take this blessing lightly. I’m sure that there are lots of other people in my position who can’t afford even one day of nursing or respite care. I know there are funding sources, but I also know that grant money runs dry early in the year. God bless those folks. I don’t know how one cares for someone with dementia without a break.

“What do you call the ‘sandwich queen’ who has a care-giver?” “Blessed.”

(What do you think of the term “sandwich queen?”  I just made that up because I don’t know what else to call someone in my position.)

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