A personal care assistant works as part of a team to help ill, weak or elderly clients with their personal needs. His or her main responsibility is to provide clients with compassionate, considerate assistance with hygiene, exercise, medication and communication. Assistants are usually supervised by a registered nurse (RN). In hospitals and formal care centers assistants are often assigned some administrative tasks such as ordering medical supplies or organizing paperwork, though most of their work is patient-centered.
Direct Patient Care
An assistant’s daily work usually revolves around helping patients take care of themselves. Long-term patients are often elderly people who are losing control of their motor functions. Some younger people may need help, too — particularly if they are recovering from major surgery or debilitating illness, or suffering from mental or physical disabilities that make ordinary tasks more difficult.
Personal care assistants may help nursing staff lift and turn people in bed to prevent bedsores. They make sure that patients’ bed linens and clothes are kept clean by removing dirty bedding and clothing and either laundering them or replacing them with fresh items. Bathing and dressing are usually also part of the job.
Helping clients get good exercise by walking with them and assisting with stretching exercises may also be included. Physical therapy-type help is often particularly valuable for people who are bedridden or bound to wheelchairs — these people are often most at risk of losing muscle mass and density through non-use.
RNs and others who supervise personal care assistants may instruct an assistant to administer medication to a client or take a client's blood pressure when needed. More complex procedures must usually be left for trained medical professionals, but assistants can do a lot of the prep work and can also perform some minor procedures. Assistants are usually in charge of reporting any changes in a client's behavior or vital statistics to the nurse supervisor or doctor in charge.
Companionship and Communication
An assistant’s role is usually shaped in part by the client’s needs, as well as the expectations and policies of the hospital or care center. In many cases, duties extend beyond things that help the patient physically to include tasks that help him or her psychologically. Accompanying clients to social events such as game nights or crafts sessions in a care home are common examples. Helping write letters to family and friends and managing the flow of information between a client and his or her next of kin is also important.
In some cases, personal assistants are also tasked with doing some routine administrative work. The workplace hierarchy is usually such that assistants rank near the bottom; doctors, nurses, and others with more training are usually seen as senior staff. This is not to say that personal care assistants are not important — to the contrary, they are often absolutely essential, and many complain that their work is under-appreciated. As the least experienced staff members, however, they are often required to do some of the less desirable tasks like filing and filling out purchase orders.
Many personal care assistant jobs are very stressful due to overcrowded or understaffed hospital conditions. Dealing with disoriented people with challenging conditions is also tough. For example, clients with memory loss conditions such as Alzheimer's disease may wander off or quickly undo what a personal care assistant just did, such as getting back into bed after being dressed and prepared for a walk outdoors. Depending on the setting, assistants may also become stressed if they feel that they are unappreciated by either clients or superiors.
Different jurisdictions have different rules for what it takes to become a personal care assistant, though there are usually relatively few hard and fast requirements. A high school diploma or equivalent is usually essential, and most clinics and hospitals look for people with compassionate, outgoing personalities. There is not usually any requirement that assistants have medical training, though, and certification and licensure is uncommon.
Potential for Advancement
In most cases, even the most experienced personal care assistants have little leverage when it comes to advancing the scope of their job duties. More senior personnel usually have greater flexibility over their schedules and may have more choice when it comes to choosing clients, but not a lot changes in terms of actual responsibilities. Still, the job often provides good experience for people interested in working in the medical profession. Those who are interested in going on to nursing or medical school often start as personal care assistants in order to earn some money, build up their resumes and get a feel for working directly with patients.