Mandy (PA): Why did I become a PA? That’s an interesting story. I have been in a wide variety of jobs in my life. I worked on market stalls, also in a chicken hatchery, then with an Indian family in their clothes shops and latterly, a bus driver. When I was a bus driver, the terminus was in St Andrews Square, Edinburgh. There was a canteen, but the banter could be a bit wearing to say the least, so I used to go to another bus company lounge to have a quiet break. One day I spoke to a young woman who was in the lounge and seemed a bit lost. Heather turned out to be an American student who was spending some time in the UK. She was due to meet a friend, but her bus had arrived late. We had a great conversation without even telling each other our names and then I left to go back to work. At the end of my shift there was a note waiting for me from Heather asking to meet again for coffee (which we did) and what became an enduring friendship developed. It turned out she was working as a PA in London! Once, when visiting her we spent time socialising with other PAs and their employers and I really enjoyed the atmosphere and great stories. This was my introduction to the disability movement. That was 24 years ago and for the past 23 years (until she passed away in July 2016) I was PA to Suselle. But what happened to Heather? We are still friends, the young man Heather was meeting all those years ago is now her husband and with their two children, they live in Oban! Suselle was working as a social worker and living with her mother when I started working for her. I was trained both by Suselle and her mother in how to best assist her with various tasks. Suselle was a great communicator, enabling me to learn quickly. I assisted her with household tasks, personal support, driving her to and from work and attending meetings, appointments, and social events. It is so important that as a PA you fit into the person’s life and in my case I had to consider Suselle’s mother as well as it was her home and I had to respect that. Whilst they both agreed employing PAs was the best way forward for Suselle, there were some challenges. I had to become very aware of boundaries and that sometimes I had to be ‘invisible,’ for example if Suselle and her mum were having a disagreement, it was not appropriate for me to express an opinion or get involved. I quickly learned that Suselle was a very independent woman, her work was very important to her and she was someone who was passionate about and involved in many things. One example of this was being asked to talk to third year social work students on a few occasions.
We did a sort of double act: Suselle talking about independent living from an employer’s point of view, and me from a PA’s perspective.
I really enjoyed being part of these conversations and got a great deal of satisfaction from being able to contribute. In 2000 Suselle’s health deteriorated and she required constant ventilation. Her support package had to be increased to cover the additional support required, including previous sleepover support having to be changed to waking night cover. At this point she required more PAs and I assisted Suselle to organise appropriate training, rotas, holiday cover, and associated paperwork. Suselle had a great spirit of adventure. Over the years we travelled to nearly all the countries of Europe, mostly by car, due to the fact of Suselle being ventilated and having to take so much equipment, although to be honest travelling by car meant that you got to see a lot more of the real country, something both Suselle and I enjoyed. We worked well as a team. Suselle would plan the trip, where she wanted to go, what she wanted to see and the route we would take. My part was to make sure we had everything
with us that we would need, which became more as the years went on and especially after Suselle required ventilation. In an ideal world Suselle would have taken two PAs because she knew that all the driving and assisting was a lot for one person, but her funding didn’t incorporate holidays! Prior to one trip a travel guidebook told us that “St Petersburg was not advisable for even the hardiest of disabled travellers.” Well, we drove 4,000 miles around the Baltic states, including St Petersburg, in 27 days. As Suselle said “Not advisable? Definitely advisable in my book.” Suselle possessed all the qualities required to be a good employer and looking back I really appreciate that more and more. She was clear that she wanted to live her life, her way, but she was always considerate, thoughtful and respectful towards her staff. A PA’s job can be isolating even if there is a team, as you tend to work different shifts, and you are a bit like ships passing in the night. Suselle would make the effort to arrange occasional social outings, for example an afternoon tea, to bring us all together for a chat and a catch up. One of the things I liked most about working for Suselle was simply appreciating the person that she was and how she led her life, her values, her faith and what she had achieved. I also enjoyed the variety of the job. Things were never mundane with Suselle! I was introduced to so many new activities, experiences and thoughts that I sometimes look back and wonder who actually got the most from our working relationship. Spending so much time together obviously meant that we became very close while still respecting boundaries and acknowledging that Suselle was my boss. Inevitably in such a close relationship we ‘had our moments’ as most people do, but for the most part we always seemed to be able to resolve them relatively quickly. My three key words for a successful PA /PA employer relationship are communication, communication, communication. Last summer, nearing the end of her life, Suselle was hospitalised. The hospital staff could not have been kinder. All her PAs continued to support Suselle in hospital, leaving the nurses to provide the medical care. We worked well together with respect for each others’ roles. Since Suselle’s passing I have mourned the loss of an employer, a friend and a way of life. But I have also had to look for new work whilst helping with Suselle’s estate. Despite all of that, if I had the last 23 years over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I was privileged to work for an exceptional woman and I am going to leave the final words to Suselle.