May 08, 2018

“A smile and a sense that they trust you”: the things you miss after 50 years as a DON

Helen Nihill retired from the aged care industry last year after a 50-year career as a DON.

Always passionate about aged care, Helen spoke to HelloCare about the changes she’s seen in the industry over half a century.

‘On the job’ training

Helen began her training at a country hospital in the 1940s.

“I did my nursing training in Young at the Mercy Hospital. It was four years of ‘on the job’ training,” she told HellCare.

Helen sat her final examination, and became a Registered Nurse. She moved to Sydney and began her obstetric training at St Margaret’s Hospital.

Only 17 years old when she began her training, Helen had finished both General and Obstetric training by the age of 22. Her career progressed quickly as her leadership potential was clearly evident.

“I became a ‘Matron’, now known as a Director of Nursing, when I was 24,” Helen said, “and I stayed in this position until I was 72.”

Helen loved organising and managing aged care facilities.

“As a Director of Nursing you have the responsibility of the day-to-day running of the facility. This encompasses the residents’ care, the staffing levels, the catering and managing the finances to keep it viable,” she said.

Stories from the ‘horse and buggy’ days

“The most enjoyment I got working with the elderly was their stories,” she said.

“Most of the residents I had in my care had come from horse and buggy days, up to jet plane days and fast cars. It no longer took days for them to travel. They had been through a World War, and some had endured a lot of hardship.”

It was always key to Helen that residents were respected and looked after.

“The most important thing when caring for residents is their comfort, both mentally and physically. A DON had to ensure the staff were caring and compassionate as well as capable of caring for all the diverse needs of the residents,” she said.

Working in aged care means you see a lot of sadness, Helen said.

“The saddest thing, I found, was seeing people still mentally alert but now having to rely on other people for their comfort and cleanliness. Their loss of dignity and independence was very hard for a lot of them.”

Dealing with death was also part of the job.

“It was also sad for the families and they required a lot of comfort. Having to make that final phone call was never easy,” said Helen.

The challenges of accreditation

Of course, over 50 years the aged care industry has changed enormously. We asked Helen about the main changes she saw.

“The main change was the Accreditation process where your policies, procedures, care plans, CQI, education of staff and day to day running of the facility were scrutinised. If you passed all areas you were given three years accreditation, if you failed in any area you were given a timeframe to fix it.

“The follow up visits from the Agency were never announced they just did ‘drop ins’ or unannounced visits. There were always ‘spot inspections’ from both State Health and Commonwealth Health but with Accreditation it was by one Agency.

“Also mandatory education became an important part of running an Aged Care Facility to ensure staff have the knowledge to care for the residents and respond in an emergency in the appropriate way. Fire training including evacuation, infection control and manual handling and had to be included in each year’s education program.

“All Facilities now have a Work, Health and Safety Committee which meets on a regular basis and consults with staff and residents about any issues they feel are not safe.”

Helen says one of her biggest gripes with the industry is the low pay for nurses.

“The very hard working assistants in nursing are very poorly paid for the type of work they do,” she said.

“I miss, the residents, staff and families”

So what does Helen miss after working for 50 years as a DON in aged care?

“The people are what I miss, the residents, staff and families.

“You could mostly get a smile and a sense that they trust you as they realise you just want what is best for all concerned.”

Image: Helen Nihill with two of her eight grandchildren.

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  1. I worked with Helen, she is a beautiful lady who made a positive impact on many peoples lives. Bless her and I wish her a wonderful retirement

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