Ricky Buchanan: Home Help, Help!

This post first appeared on the thread for my patient group on Facebook.  Ricky has kindly agreed that I can share it here for you.  I was so impressed with what she wrote.  I’ve discussed home help on this blog before. But Ricky’s words have grown from more than fifteen years experience with government-funded home carers and she has laid it all out so beautifully.  I just knew there would be people here who would benefit from her wisdom. Here are her five helpful hints for working with Home Helpers.

Thanks Ricky!  By the way, you can find more of Ricky’s sage advice on her blog here, she writes about empowering apple users with assistive technology:
Firstly, try to stop worrying. The cleaner or home help or whatever (I’m going to write “helper” from now on) does not care if your house is messy, dirty, unhygienic, full of mess, etc. DO NOT clean up because they are coming or waste energy worrying about it. You are guaranteed not to have the filthiest house they’ve ever seen, and part of their job is NOT to judge you. If they make rude comments or anything, fire them and find a new person. You do not have spare energy to worry about that stuff!
Many helpers come from a non-English-speaking background, and even the locals are not from your family and don’t know your preferences. They will have a different idea of what “normal”, “ordinary” and “sensible” is, to your own.Don’t expect people to pick up hints or body language necessarily. You need to do the best you can to communicate clearly and in understandable words. If you are upset at something they did, try not just to grump and be snarky but actually clearly say “You cleaned the toilet with soap, I’m glad it’s clean but could you use the Harpic next week please?”.
If you’re too tired to communicate at the time, contact the agency or (preferably) the helper directly as soon as possible and apologise for your mood and do the explaining then.If you need the helpers to be quiet, or not ask you questions, or whatever, you need to say that, too. Try to say why you need something if it’s an unusual request – I need helpers to figure stuff out themselves instead of asking things because I can’t manage to answer a lot of questions. That’s a really uncommon request! I have to be very clear that I don’t mind if they make the “wrong” decision, it’s more important to just decide for themselves and we’ll talk about it when I feel better.
There are more ways to do things that

Put signs on things that your home help/cleaner is likely to use. My hall cupboard has a label to say what stuff goes on what shelf. My washing machine has the instructions taped to the front, etc. The laundry detergent has a sticker saying “only use half a scoop.” It can save you a PILE of energy if your home help can figure out something without asking you first. If they ask you anyway, tell them to read the sign.

Try to make your signs as simple as possible with not too many words and not too hard words, remember most cleaners have English as a second language and may not have very good literacy.

If you get the cleaners to do the same thing every time, make a list of those things with instructions to help new people. For example one item might be:

Change bed clothes (change fitted sheet, top sheet, doona cover, pillowcases. put old things in blue hamper in bathroom, new things are in hall cupboard)


Mop floors in bathroom and kitchen (bucket and mop in bathroom, detergent in hall cupboard second shelf, use 1 tablespoon detergent and warm water in bucket)

If you get your helpers to do different things each week, make a list anyway with all the possible things on it and print out a bunch of copies. Each time they come, tick the things you want done and give them the list.  Here is a printable of cleaning tasks that might help spark some ideas.
(Thanks for the link Ruth Elbon  -Rach)

There are more ways to do things that you have ever dreamed of, and your helpers WILL do things in ways that seem totally crazy to you. They will do your laundry with dish detergent and clean your floors with teatowels on their hands and knees and leave grease on your dishes. Don’t give up though!

If something is done wrong, speak to the helper but ALSO check if you could clarify your list instructions or the labels on things to help stop that thing happening in future. Also check in with reality – it might not be done the way you prefer but did it get the job done (more-or-less)? You wouldn’t have cleaned the toilet with hand soap but is it clean now? Most things are not actually worth stressing about too much.

At first, home help often seems like more trouble than it’s worth, but it IS worth persisting. You’ll learn how to write your signs/lists so the helpers understand, and how to explain things, and you’ll find helpers you get on with and once they’ve worked with you a bit you will both know each other better.

-Ricky Buchanan

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5 Home-help Lessons

Across the last six years I have benefitted from the full range of home care services and helpers at various times.  I’ve used fully funded government care services, agencies and privately employed helpers. To start with, I really struggled with being able to ask for the help I needed.  I had a hard time building productive relationships and an even more difficult time saying when it was time for it to end.  I learned ‘on the job’ how to best approach the necessity of home help.

Are you considering having home help, too?  Maybe your own capacity to do the things that need doing has been gradually diminishing.  Or perhaps yours is more of a relapsing and remitting picture.  Maybe your partner has reached maximum coping capacity.  It’s time to bring someone in from the outside to help out before the wheels fall off completely.  It’s a challenge, an adjustment and can enrich your family’s life enormously.

Having someone in your home, helping you out, is like embarking on a new relationship, like a marriage …kinda!
At first you only want to be seen in your best light.  Then, the initial rush of infatuation may fade. If there isn’t a solid basis of honesty, it will be hard to maintain positive communication channels. After a while, you feel like they should just know what it is you need them to do, even if you haven’t directly asked.  There will be small frustrations that can fester into big situations if you don’t address them. And just like a new relationship, it will take time to get to know the person and them, you.  It’s an art that takes practise; clear communication is a skill.


I'd love to help!

Here are some of the things I have learned over the years.

1(10)Talk. And don’t talk.
It’s hard to transition from home-maker to home-care employer.  I have spent a lifetime making sure I don’t need to ask people to do anything for me.  So like anyone who reluctantly finds themselves being “boss” without prior experience, there are things to learn about taking the leadership role with your home care provider.  Asking directly is incredibly hard for me, it makes me feel so uncomfortable.  So we started up a communications notebook.  I write in it the night before, all the tasks that need doing and mark the priorities.  The notebook is great because our home carer can write in it too if we need to replenish supplies of anything or make notes about the progress through the list.  It also means we don’t get caught up in chatter without the work getting done.

1(11)Ever heard that saying, ‘if you fail to plan, you plan to fail’?
Before your carer ever begins, sit down and work out the job description.  Be specific and realistic about things like tasks, hours, pay rate, tax.  Try to anticipate the questions so you can provide the information on the first visit. Specify any no-go-zones.  Also, try to make time for a chat once a week, during working hours.  Ask your home carer how it is going, ask for suggestions about how things might be done differently/ better/ more effectively.  This meeting over a cuppa is a great way to raise any issues that may have arisen, it builds the foundations of a good working arrangement.

1(12)Sometimes, the relationship will work, other times it won’t.
If your home-carer is new to your home, allow a few weeks for them to settle in to the role. Don’t assume it is going to always be difficult just because it’s a struggle at first.  If however it isn’t working after a good amount of effort and flexibility; make the change you need to make.  Having someone in your personal space who doesn’t, even with communication, understand your needs will significantly add to your stress.  Home help is a very personal role and you need to be happy with the person who spends so much time in your private world.  If they come from an agency you can ask for a switch in carer.  It can take time to find the right fit, don’t give up until you find it.

1(13)Maintain a professional, friendly, working relationship.
Make sure everyone in the family understands that you are the employer and it’s not their job to ask your home helper to do anything.  Similarly, even if your home help is familiar to your children, they will need to know that they still must come to you for permissions.  In our home the rule is that if Mum’s at home, Mum’s in charge.  🙂  Maintenance of any relationship takes kindness, flexibility and a willingness to find alternative solutions.  Most issues can be solved with one or all of these three attributes.

1(14)Help may be closer than you think!
Be creative in your search for the right person.  After finding help from a range of sources in the past, I was very surprised one day when I was asked if I would consider employing a friend for the job.  Cami already spends a lot of time with our family and knows our routines like her own. She is also a talented house keeper with great organisational skills and a mother herself.  My children like to call her their ‘other mother’.  Her intuition and close connection to our family make for the most positive home help experience we have ever had.  When it comes to home help in a family with young children, it may be worth asking around the people in your close circle.  For Cami, who needed a flexible part time role and for us, it’s been a win-win. Thanks Cami, we’re glad you are part of our team!