Head of special needs care at the Haus der Barmherzigkeit (HABIT), an assisted-living facility.


It is easy to see why Helga Haselmayer is good at her job. Kind and patient, the 47-year-old has been developing her approach towards interacting with others for almost 30 years. It’s about attitude, openness and having an almost innate approachability and, of course, “being a people person in general.”

The ultimate goal of caregivers is to help patients become more self–reliant, as much as it’s possible on their own. Having helped so many, Haselmayer has come to the conclusion that people often underestimate special-needs people – what they are already capable of – therefore not always giving them the credit they deserve.

But not every case leads to a fairytale ending; in this job, suffering and death are par for the course. But invisible to most people, Haselmayer says, as many relegate such matters to hospitals, which is often where they assume they should stay.

HABIT provides services in assisted–living facilities, with its own day center, and at the patients’ own homes. They also assist families and loved ones who want to care for their relatives themselves. In fact, a full 80 percent of special-needs people in Austria are cared for in a home setting, with the majority of caretakers being mothers – few fathers take this role.

Although it’s also her job, Haselmayer is continually impressed by the level of dedication of these women. But she is also saddened by how little time they have leftover for themselves and how little help they receive from their social circles.

Sitting with Haselmayer, the strongest sense you have from her is calm. She has seen so much.  Life and circumstances are rarely fair, and death is a constant presence. She has learned to accept loss when it inevitably comes.

“What I’ve learned for myself is, it’s OK to feel sadness, even as a caregiver. Man stirbt nicht mit (you don’t die with them) but being sad is a part of life and that’s OK.”

There are as many different ways of living as there are different people, as well as the needs and problems that they have.