“You need to get into their world. Know what they like, who they are, even when they can’t comprehend or remember.” This is what Ajibola Ola, senior care specialist, with Lifesprk, believes sets you apart from being a caregiver hired to do a job versus one who becomes their family and improves a person’s life experience. “You need to focus your time and efforts on being fully present with those you care for,” adds Ajibola.
During COVID-19 this simple, human-centered philosophy is what matters most to clients, families, and many others when they aren’t able to be with their family members, many of whom are isolated. It’s also what has earned Ajibola national recognition as one of five caregivers across the country to be chosen as a finalist for the Home Care Association of America ‘Caregiver of the Year’ award.
Founded in 2002, the Home Care Association of America (HCAOA) is the industry’s leading trade association currently representing nearly 3,000 companies that employ more than 500,000 caregivers across the United States. HCAOA serves as the home care industry’s unified voice in Washington, D.C. and state governments across the country.
“At a time when seniors needed compassion, a calm voice exerting confidence, and a connection to what gives their life purpose, Ajibola was her clients’ and their families’ ever-constant comforting presence,” said Shawna Wilkie, RN, Lifesprk Life Care Director. “Ajibola provided strong communication, troubleshooted and identified positive solutions, and led by example to inspire others even in the most stressful situations.”
The role of professional caregivers, especially those working within senior living communities, has been brought to the forefront this year under one of the most challenging situations we’ve seen yet. On a positive note, this pandemic has highlighted the need to invest more in our caregiver workforce and fill a critical gap in providing high quality senior care. At Lifesprk, caregivers are more than just companions or task completers; they are essential to the health and wellbeing of seniors and their skill, expertise, and compassion is needed now more than ever.
Wages, growth potential, and experience have shied many away from this profession. Ajibola recalls her own initial experience as a caregiver nine years ago. “I was 50 years old when I had my first child. At the time, I owned my own in-home daycare and I loved working with children,” said Ajibola. “My doctor said no more. I needed to stop working to stay healthy during my pregnancy, but the bills continued. I needed something once my son was born to offset the debt and balance life as a new mother, so I took the CNA (certified nursing assistant) test and passed.”
Ajibola thought it would be easy to get a job as a caregiver because she had a certificate. “Boy was I naïve. I didn’t get hired right away because I didn’t have any experience yet. One woman along the way urged me to go to a job fair. While there they asked me to take a test that is required of many caregivers before applying for a job. I passed and moved onto the interview stage eventually landing a job at Parkshore with Lifesprk.”
Despite her years of caring for children, Ajibola was nervous about working with seniors. She felt hesitant and uncertain because she didn’t know yet how to take their blood pressure and other vital signs. “They didn’t teach you these skills during the certification process and many of my colleagues felt I should know this. I had a lot of questions, but I was eager to learn. My supervisor saw this in me and said, ‘I give you two weeks and you will be a master.’ She was right – I had the drive inside me and I kept pushing forward. Lifesprk provided the skills I needed to become confident. I meant to stay in this job for only two years, nine years later this is the best decision I’ve made. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed my job.”
Over the years, Ajibola has had a mix of easy and difficult clients. “It’s part of the job as seniors age and many are faced with dementia or Alzheimer’s. But they need us, even when they are feeling frustrated, to just be patient and kind.”
In Nigeria where Ajibola is from, they refer to every elder as ‘mama’ or ‘grama’ instead of calling them by their name whether they are related to them or not, it’s more of a general term of endearment and respect. “I ask each of my clients what they want me to call them, explaining why. They love to be called ‘grama’ or ‘mama.’ I get to know them and their children and grandchildren and immerse myself in everything that makes them whole. It’s ‘homework’ meaning, what you do at home is applied to work – I love them like my own grandparents.’
She brings to her job a unique sense of humor mixed with love and compassion. And during COVID that has made a significant difference. “They are worried, and they miss their families. I tell them there’s nothing else we can do but be patient and move forward. If they are sad about not talking to their families, I pick up the phone and say here, let’s talk to them. There is no reason to focus on the negative but to find ways to bring joy to each day until this is all over. And it will be. We’re all in this together.”
As she looks back on the key pieces of her life that made her the caregiver she is today, Ajibola shared that it’s her mother who prepared her for this role. “We had drivers and people to take care of us in Nigeria. My late father was an executive for the biggest newspaper in West Africa, the Daily Times of Nigeria, and I worked for a communications company as a public relations and marketing manager. It was my mother who taught me to cook, clean, and do it right for myself. Because of her, everything I do comes from my heart.”
Ajibola’s Advice to People Seeking Professional Caregiver Roles
When asked if working during COVID-19 makes her nervous or fearful she said no. “Some in this field are careless, we are not. I take care of myself. I follow infection control and wear masks and gowns, and take vitamins to stay healthy. When I get home, I follow a strict routine – right into the basement to change, clothes go right into the washing machine, spray the house, swish salt and water before bed, wake up, and repeat. I take it serious, but I don’t let it consume me.”
Her advice to others considering this job is pretty simple and frank: “Keep your mind open, you never know what will come of this job. Lifesprk has given us the tools we need to be successful. This job will become your second home and what you do at work should reflect who you are at home. It’s that simple.”
Change and more responsibility makes Ajibola somewhat apprehensive as newer roles takes her out of her comfort zone. “Just recently I was promoted to Life Care Coordinator and I wasn’t sure if I was ready. My pastor said to me, ‘Go for it. You don’t know what God has prepared for you.’ That advice keeps me moving. To anyone seeking this type of work I say go for it. You may be surprised, as I was, to find out this is your calling.”
As for the prestigious award she’s won, Ajibola is humbled and honored. “I get my daily breath from this job. Lifesprk doesn’t have a choice, I’m here until I retire. I am a blessed woman.”
For us and our clients, I’d say we are, too.