At Home in Someone Else’s House

You cannot escape old age. An estimated 456,000 people in Austria depend on care services and the numbers continue to rise. Many prefer 24-hour care at home. In 2018, this meant around 65,000 caregivers worked.

by Sabina Crisan & Teodora Stefana Bularca

Mona, a perky carer from Arad, a city in Romania, chose a classic Viennese location – the garden of the Schönbrunn castle – to tell the story of the immigrant women who come to Austria to take care of elderly people in need. She was a teacher back in Romania and decided to move to Austria in 2011 in the depth of the financial crisis: “The worst thing in life is to struggle to make ends meet, to feel unfulfilled and live just for the stomach,” she said. “Add a spirit of adventure and you leave the second you can.”

Work tourism is not new. In Austria, a growing irregular labor market in the caring professions has developed over the last 30 years, since the fall of the Iron Curtain. 24-hour caregivers, mainly from neighboring Eastern European countries, look after people in need in their home environment. In 2007 the Austrian Home Care Act (Hausbetreuungsgesetz) aimed to cease the existing laissez-faire policy in this field. Until then, employment in 24-hour care was a grey area labeled under voluntary or charitable work and the remuneration called “pocket money” to signal the lack of an employment relationship.

Since then, the market has become dominated with intermediary placement agencies, supposed to facilitate the relationship between caregivers, the families who employ them and Austrian bureaucracy. Unfortunately, these agencies often exploit carers through high commissions and abusive contracts. A loophole in the regulation allows them to act as employers of these caregivers, even though they are registered as sole proprietors.

“I heard [fashion model] Linda Evangelista say that she does not get out of bed for less than $10,000. I could not ask for that amount of money, but I was not going to work for €1,000,” explains Mona jokingly. In order to help each other out and lobby for their cause to receive fair wages and working conditions, Romanian caregivers are creating a self-governing NGO in Austria called DREPT pentru ingrijire (Right for Care). “Even if there are many who look down on us because they would not do our work, we really love what we do and want to support each other,” says Roxana, a former accountant from Timiș.

Roxana started working as a caregiver 22 years ago because job opportunities were scarce at home. There were no placement agencies yet; you had to rely on private networks and friends to connect with people in need of care abroad. “You needed an invitation just to cross the border,” Roxana remembers. Romania was not yet an EU member, so most immigrants were working illegally, in three-month shifts: “I started working as a caregiver in Austria 12 years ago, because here I could work legally, I had health insurance and the drive back to Timiș was shorter. I only work in a two-week rotation, while in Germany I had to work three months straight, which was very hard for me,” she explains.

(C) Unsplash/Micheile Henderson

The Carers’ Rotation

Nowadays, it has become common practice for 24-hour caregivers to take turns in providing care every two, three or four weeks, depending on how far they have to travel back home or based on the severity of the illness. Maria is a retired nurse, who came to Austria as a young refugee back in 1983. She runs an agency that employs 100 carers, all from Transylvania: “I know the mentality of these people; it is also inside me. The Romanian women are admirable, very hardworking and without that kind of conceitedness,” she explains proudly.

But as a nurse, Maria does not approve of the two-week rotation system. While it seems more humane for the caregivers, it puts pressure on the patients, especially people suffering from dementia. So, her carers work for at least one month at a time. During corona, some were willing to remain in Vienna for even four months.

“But there were also some who freaked out because of the media hysteria or became hysterical themselves because of the pandemic. Or the family at home pushed them to come back. Others were afraid to come to work,” says Maria.

Eszter, a compassionate caregiver from Mureș, explains the ambivalence of the situation in more detail: “It’s not easy, because love for them [the patients] is inevitable. You cannot be inhuman. They are endearing, and it’s a trauma for them when you leave. [Even if] he knows my colleague as well, … when I leave, he is upset.”

Between February and June, she worked with her elderly patient uninterrupted, which brought her to a near collapse in March. Working in 24-hour care for so long with people with severe dementia can take a toll. With the borders closing and strict quarantine regulations in the corona crisis, many had acute concerns that the system would collapse.

In order to allow Romanian carers to travel back and forth to Austria, exceptional transport had to be organized. In May, Roxana was on the first train back to Vienna: “For me it was super okay, I really felt protected. It seemed the best solution in times of crisis,” she says. Other carers traveled by bus for the steep price of 280€ and crossed the border on foot carrying their luggage. Roxana arranged with her family and the agency that they should cover the costs of travel, the corona test, and the hotel room. Others were not so lucky. “As always, there is no one on the side of the caregivers, and they just do the best they can,” says Roxana matter-of-factly.

Carers live a life of contrasts: They are attached to the people they are taking care of, but they have to deal with a flawed system. “Without a pure heart, a lot of courage and understanding, you cannot do the job!” says Eszter. Her greatest satisfaction comes from seeing a person recovering. She recalls once pushing a senior for weeks to get him to get out of bed. When he succeeded, he was boundless in his thanks: “Without you I would have stayed in bed,” he told her. “I was very disappointed, from morning to night. And look, you got me to get up and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

The bonds these women form with the people they are taking care of are strong. While it was still possible to take her current senior swimming, Roxana and she would go often. Now they enjoy the classic Kaffee und Kuchen in the cafes at Wien Mitte and knitting in the afternoon. Mona talks lovingly about Albert, the first senior who was in her care: “He was 92; it united us that we had the same zodiac sign, the same taste in music, even in clothes.” They read a lot of history together and when they argued, she would play Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to let him know that she was upset. Another time, when Albert was choking on a pill, she was unable to apply the Heimlich maneuver because he was sitting down. He was crying in anger and pain; feeling helpless, she was crying, too. Then she remembered the movies with Jackie Chan… “So I told him ‘Please lean forward, try to cough and I’ll try to hit you, but not too hard.’” It worked. And afterward, whenever a Jackie Chan movie came on TV, they both laughed.

These caregivers often try to bring memories of home into their temporary families. Eszter cooks her famous Romanian chicken soup: “They say they have never tasted anything better.” Mona even introduced a Romanian-only cuisine at Albert’s, whom she took care of for seven years: “I implemented the Romanian spirit, the sangre caliente. I showed them warmth. After that, all the seniors in the apartment house wantedRomanian caregivers.”

Eventually, it was just them cooking sarmale, while the aroma of this traditional Romanian dish would fill the whole building. In hope of a better life, caregivers leave children, parents, and grandparents back home. “We are that conscientious generation which, if we do something, we do it with love or do not do it at all,” Mona says. She herself does not have children. “But a woman never stops giving – so at night, when we are putting the seniors to bed, they take our hands and thank us. That is the most human part of it.” She smiled, brushing away a tear.

The life of caregivers is a life of “in-betweens.” In-between Romania and Austria; in-between callousness and compassion, in-between being respected and taken for granted; in-between legality and illegality, in-between families and friends. A life where you are always, and never, truly at home.

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