This summer has been an eyeopening experience for me. Rather than commencing a summer internship, I took a summer job as a caretaker of elders in my hometown of Kolding, Denmark. I primarily did this to save up some money for the school year and did not expect it to be as giving and as big of a learning experience as it turned out to be. A colleague of mine called me a 'sommerfugl', the Danish word for butterfly literally meaning 'summer bird' indicating the function, summer replacement, and nature of the work, travelling somewhere new everyday and moving from flower to flower or place to place. I found this metaphor very suiting, as I always tend to try out many different things and gain insights from people of all sorts of backgrounds. I was therefore excited to meet people in their homes and hear stories of their lives and their take on society today - and oh how we talked!
When first telling people, I would be working as a caretaker for elders, their first reaction was 'eeeew, why would you do that?', a reaction I expected when I first signed up for the job. It is a job with a certain stigma in Denmark and almost everyone has an opinion of the field, although rarely have actual experience. I knew it would be challenging to be with people in all sorts of situations, environments and at different points of their lives and that I would be a newcomer, someone from the outside, who wouldn't necessarily be let in at first sight. Although I was right that the job proved to be challenging in so many way (mostly other ways than expected), I couldn't have been more wrong about my assumptions of their hospitality. I quickly learned that the vast majority of people are extremely welcoming, grateful and curious, when someone new steps into their lives. Often they are used to the same people every day, only meeting a limited number of people during the week and for short periods of time. When someone new walks in, they want to chat, want to hear about your experiences and how you find the job. I have met such grateful and kind people, who spread such happiness and have taught me so many valuable life lessons that I will be happy to keep with me for the rest of my life.
The three main things I learned from my summer job:
1. Humility - As someone without experience or education in the field, I had little knowledge to contribute. For my work introduction, I followed different colleagues on their regular routes for two weeks. Learning in this job is learning by doing and learning from each other. I learned that it is important to ask questions in order to learn - both from people more experienced than you, less experienced and the people you are in contact with. Everyone will have different ways of doing things and it's so important to share knowledge and learn from each other to create the best possible solution for each citizen. The same goes within the design field, learn from others and take in as much knowledge as you can. It will help your process and you will often achieve a much better result by bringing in different perspectives. In relation to this, collaboration is just as important and a big part of a good learning environment. If you collaborate, you quickly find each others strengths and weaknesses and learn to work with these. Communication is key in order for collaboration to work and I could talk about my experiences with this all day.
2. Flexibility and time management - Although this is already an important part of my life on a day to day basis, these skills have really been put to test and been under development for these past months. As a summer replacement, I never know where I will be the following day and when. The function of the job is basically to stand in for colleagues on vacation and fill in the gaps of the plan. Every morning when you show up, you then get the plan for the day with the times, addresses and work tasks you have to do and at who. There is little time for studying the plan in details and often it's a matter of just getting started and see how things go. This approach means that no two days are alike and that you always have to be prepared for everything. Not just events on the plan, but often things are different out in peoples homes. You have to accommodate if someone falls, if someone is injured or just feeling unwell. You learn to respond to a situation quickly and come up with a further plan of how to manage the rest of your tasks. The flexibility is also the exciting thing about the job, if you've had a rough day or just a really busy plan, you know that tomorrow will be completely different and nothing like today.
3. Importance of attitude - A positive attitude is key. I mean it literally makes the world of a difference when working with people. If I'm having a bad day and felling low, it quickly rubs of and the elders feel it, often commenting or picking up on it. It ofte affects their mood and makes my job much more difficult, especially in relation to people with dementia and alzheimers, where things in the brain work a bit differently and people in my experience are more susceptible to mood changes. If I'm having a rough day and come to an elder to wake them up, if they are happy and wake up with a smile and good mood, it quickly rubs off on me and my mood rises immediately. Similarly, if I'm having good day and meet people with a smile and positive attitude, it rubs off on them, even if they are in pain, having a rough day or sad about their situation or a passing. Good mood spreads and sadly so does bad mood. So why not make sure that good mood and happiness wins? It makes life easier for everyone.
Lastly, I will highly recommend the job to anyone with interest in working with people. Meeting people, who often are at the end of their lives gives you a different outlook on life and invaluable life experience - from their shared experiences and from your own work experiences. It is a massive challenge in communication, compassion and adjustment, but it is all worth it and you meet some incredible people, all willing to help, on your way!