6 Audio clip 5: Alex Zinga
At the time of the interview, Alex Zinga had recently turned 60. She lived on her own in a small terraced house in Sheffield. Of her immediate family only one sister survived, with whom she says she didn't get on. Her friends were ‘far flung’. She had had an illness, which made her ‘floppy’ off and on, for over 20 years. It began when she was an air stewardess and came back from Africa with a mysterious paralysis. For a while, she was free of the symptoms, changed career and became a college lecturer in English and drama, among other subjects. With the menopause her condition seemed to return and she needed support with washing, dressing, cooking and cleaning. She opted for direct payments and paid for two carers to look after her during the week.
She also paid the mother of Kathryn Shipley (one of her carers) to do the cleaning. Kathryn's husband would occasionally do odd jobs for her – shopping trips or outings. For example, the night before the interview she had been to a book signing by the writer Germaine Greer, who was visiting Sheffield. She paid for this help with money from the Independent Living Fund. This became possible after she was assessed by the local authority for the higher level of care and was deemed to be in need of 36.5 hours' community care a week. However, she opted for less care than this, preferring to be left on her own some of the time.
Alex preferred to advertise locally for her carers and found that women in their thirties with young children at school worked best with her. She was exacting when it came to interviewing. She liked people to be ‘efficient and clean and tidy and smart and hygienic’, but she was also looking for people who could laugh with her and cope with her straight talking.
With some of the women she has employed she felt she has been as much a counsellor as a boss. Often she had found herself advising them after they've had problems at home with their husbands. She was concerned that some of these young women had been down-trodden and lacking in the motivation needed to change their lives.
Alex got help and advice with sorting out wages, insurance and tax for her personal assistants from the local disability centre, and managed to keep things in order by having a separate bank account for the direct payments. The centre also helped with drawing up the details of contracts in the past.
Kathryn's only similar experience of this type of work was caring for her mother for two years after she had a stroke. She had worked for Alex for two years. Alex paid for her four weeks' holiday and was flexible about time off. Kathryn said that she'd only ever want to work for a woman and that she enjoyed working with Alex. The only thing she doesn't like doing for Alex is rubbing sesame oil into her skin, because it makes her slip and slide. The only skills she thought she needed were being able to lift and cook, and to be tidy and clean. She had got to know Alex so well she could almost anticipate what she needed.
Given that this working relationship felt like a friendship, Alex was asked how she managed the boundary between being a friend and being an employer. She explained:
Christmas and Easter and birthdays, you know, a little something for a little bit of appreciation … you know, this sort of thing. But, apart from that, no, we stick with wages, because otherwise I feel that they might start to expect presents every other week … if, as Kathryn did for me the other week, she made me some flapjacks, I mean she's allowed a flapjack, if she's made them [laughs].