Natalie Russ, 47, arrives at Alex’s apartment at six in the morning. At nine, she sums up her morning accomplishments: "I woke him up, shaved him, changed the bedding, cleaned the floor, made breakfast, gave him a shower, changed his clothes and made lunch."
Natalie, a home care health worker with over 20 years of experience, works for Danel nursing, where she is assigned to patients on behalf of the Social Security Agency. She has known her patient Alex, 80, for a long time.
"I began working with his wife, who was paralyzed and died a year ago. I have been with the family for 11 years," she says.
Natalie explains her day-to-day tasks with her patients.
"When I have a nursing patient with diapers, then I change them, of course. I am also responsible for showering, shaving, all personal hygiene. In the house, I take care of the laundry, cooking, shopping, and if needed, waiting in line for checkups and appointments. Just about everything – I’m like the patient's right hand,” she says as she sits Alex upright on the couch.
“I like to play games and cards with Alex. Sometimes I play music and we dance together. He doesn’t leave the house, so it’s important to get the body moving, to do activities. If I can’t sit all day, then he won’t sit all day either!” she adds with a laugh.
Aside from Alex, Natalie also has another patient who she sees regularly. While this patient is not convalescent like Alex, she is alone, since her daughter stopped visiting as the pandemic began. Natalie is available to her 24/7.
"It takes character"
Natalie made aliyah to Israel from Moscow in 1995, alone, after studying and working as a registered nurse in an oncology ward at a Russian hospital. When she arrived, she realized that the certificates and experience she had gained were not recognized in Israel. She met her husband, who is also a home care worker who works at a home for Holocaust survivors, in Israel. Her eldest son out of three, recently informed them that he intends to continue the family tradition and study nursing.
"I'm happy, even though it's hard,” Natalie says of her son’s choice. “Working in medicine, in nursing, in caregiving, it takes character, and it has character. Anyone who doesn't have character won't last a minute in a job like this."
"Not everyone can work as a caregiver," Natalie clarifies. "You need to know how to care for patients, to deal with cognitive problems, how to lift a patient, how to clean them. There isn’t always proper training, and there certainly isn’t a rewarding salary.”
Natalie says that the most difficult thing about the job is dealing with loss. She worked with Alex’s wife Galina for eight years and they became very close. When she passed away about a year ago, Natalie was devastated.
“When you work for someone for many years, it’s not easy to part from them,” she says. “Sometimes you really fall into a mental pit that you do not know how to get out of."
Three years of struggle for better conditions
What is most difficult for Natalie about her job is the contempt for the profession and the resulting poor conditions of home care giving.
"For example, the transition time between patients is not paid, which is unfair and makes it very difficult to treat more than one patient,” Natalie explains. “When I take this time into account, my salary can drop below 29 shekel per hour."
"I have convalescent patients and I also have easier patients. No diapers, no showers, but we still get the same salary for both. My seniority and years of experience do not raise the salary either,” she says. “And if my patient dies, God forbid, I do not receive a letter of dismissal and I am not entitled to severance pay. I have to wait without a job for a long time until there is a new patient."
Home care workers have been waging a struggle with Social Security over working conditions for three years. Natalie is one of the leaders in this struggle and she is proud of the achievements they have gained.
"We used to have to report our hours when we entered and exited the patient's home, over the phone. It was problematic because there were many days that did not start at the patient's home, but instead at the pharmacy to buy medicine or at the supermarket or store, and so we actually lost hours that way,” she explains.
“We fought for it and today it has changed, which is good. Unfortunately, there are many more things that need to be fixed in working conditions. We are still fighting.”
Finding moments of happiness
"I just love helping people and I see the results of my work,” Natalie says. “I extended [Galina’s] life by a good few years. I would come over and her numbers would balance, she would flourish every time I arrived. Suddenly she had a friend, she had someone to be with, someone to talk to, so she would relax. When I saw that, it made my heart happy, I didn't need more than that.”
Natalie described how her current patient asked her to bring over chocolates on her next visit. According to her, it’s the small things like someone bringing you something delicious to eat, that make life worth living – for people of all ages, not just the elderly and disabled.
“They are a generation of strong people, there is a lot to learn from them. I do not know if I will reach this age,” she says. “You have to live, that's all. Capture moments of happiness, enjoy life.”
Another thing Natalie notes is the deep closeness that is created with the patients and their families.
"It's just like another family," Natalie says. "Alex's son is like my brother, we have had a very close relationship for many years. I come to his house, celebrate holidays, we’ve really become friends. I even come over on a Saturday to help if needed. It's like going over to my parents’ house.”
When it comes to coronavirus, Natalie says that Alex doesn’t understand what is going on, but that her second patient follows the news closely and would have taken part in the demonstrations [on Balfour] if she could. She says that loneliness, while already a problem in the patient’s lives, is now exacerbated.
"I can come and just sit with the person and talk to them, watch TV together. That there is someone sitting next to them, that they can talk to, say what they feel, it makes everything much better," she says.
Natalie says that the people she works with are etched on her soul. She described a visit to one of her favorite patients, who she went to visit in the hospital as she was nearing the end of her life.
"Fifteen minutes after I left, she passed away, as if she was waiting for me, to say goodbye to me,” she says. “She was an amazing person and very significant in my life.”
“Someone from whom you learn to live”
“I work with older people, people who have been through and done a lot in life. People who have been through the Nazi camps, wars, the greatest atrocities,” Natalie continues. “You meet someone who was in the camps and has such positive energy, you would never believe what they went through some thing like that. That’s someone from whom you learn to live.”
Natalie describes her second patient, 90 years old, as always well dressed, wearing makeup, everything tidy.
“One day she had an accident and an ambulance came to pick her up. She told the paramedics to wait, went to her room, changed into a nice suit, put on blush, and only then lay down on the stretcher. They couldn’t believe it,” she says.
Natalie hopes that her profession as a home care worker will eventually receive the respect it deserves.
"A lot of people come to work as caregivers only for a short time and run away,” she says. “My dream is that people will dedicate themselves to this profession, invest in it, and be rewarded accordingly with good pay and good conditions."