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Carers travel from Poland to look after the elderly in Switzerland

 Surprise (Switzerland) 09 May 2019

More and more senior citizens in Switzerland are supervised at home by foreign carers. Gerda Pieruch came from Poland to look after Rosmarie Frei. Her job is to care. But her presence is the biggest help of all. (1782 Words) - By Diana Frei



Polish nurse Gerda Pieruch helps Rosmarie Frei with her shoes. Photo: Andrea Ganz


Polish nurse Gerda Pieruch, on the left, and Rosmarie Frei, on the right. Photo: Andrea Ganz

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Nurse Gerda Pieruch and client Rosmarie Frei go for a walk. Photo: Andrea Ganz

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Nurse Gerda Pieruch helps Rosmarie Frei with daily tasks. Photo: Andrea Ganz

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The sociologist Sarah Schilliger. Photo: Andrea Ganz

Four years have gone by since Rosmarie Frei suffered a stroke. Before that she looked after her husband, who suffered from Parkinson's disease. While he laid in a hospital bed, she experienced an haemorrhage and had to undergo rehabilitation.

When you ask her how long she had to stay there, she says without hesitation: "two weeks". Peter Frei, her son, rectifies: "Four months". We don't judge the dainty woman, sitting on her bed with an open smile, listening attentively. She is a senior citizen, but not an old woman. We believe everything she says. She has practically no short term memory any more, although she is aware that her husband has died in the meantime.

Four years ago, everything changed in the Frei's household, a detached house with a view of Lake Hallwil. All of a sudden two of its inhabitants were hospitalised and in need of rehabilitation and assistance. Peter Frei still lives and works in his parents' house, but he also has his own company and is very busy. His sister has children to take care of. He searched the internet for care services, but found "nothing right" in Switzerland. In Germany he came across Claudia Weisenburger from Pro Casa Nursing Services and two weeks later a carer arrived. Now Gerada Pieruch, from Silesia, Poland, lives and works in the Frei's household. Just like an Au-Pair, but in this case, a Senio-Pair.

She gets up at 7.30 in the morning: "I need half an hour for me, then I make breakfast". She tidies up, cleans and washes. Peter Frei usually makes lunch, and from 12.45 until 15.00 is siesta time. "I rest or read magazines from Poland", says Gerda Pieruch, "that is our break".

"I just don't have a break", interjects Romarie Frei. Instead she prefers to walk in the apartment. Gerda explains: "That doesn't bother me, as she should walk. A bit of movement is good for you".

"Gerda is my best companion", says Rosmarie Frei. However, if Gerda is replaced by a colleague after six weeks, she will be the one taking it the hardest.

The head of the Nursing Services, Claudia Weisenburger, explains why it is not a good idea to keep the carers in the same household for too long: "With all the time they spend in a house, people start feeling they belong there and have difficulty in leaving. That is why my carers only stay two to six weeks. I try to prevent people from feeling down after their employment".

Frau Rosmarie in the 'Holy bus'

For Weisenburger it was clear: in order to be able to fulfil every requirement, the company must be based in Switzerland. In 2003 she founded the A Casa 24h Ltd. The carers are still largely German or Silesian, but with a German passport.

While certain agencies demand 1200 Euros per month plus commission, the daily rates for A Casa 24h lie between 260 and 300 francs, depending on how much care is demanded and how much work is accrued. To supplement the salary A Casa 24h takes care of all statutory benefits like Old Age and Survivors' Insurance, insurance against unemployment and non-occupational accidents, with holding tax and pension fund for employees. In addition to this, they cover travel costs, one night in a hotel, and access to Skype.

The amount paid to the carer is considered to be a low wage in Switzerland. In spite of this a Polish woman earns as much working as a Senio-Pair in Switzerland in a week as an employee in her homeland earns in a month, and she is entitled to a pension. The carers finance their children's studies or supplement their pension.

Once or twice a day Gerda Pieruch and Rosmarie Frei go for a walk through the village. "After that we play a game". Gerda Pieruch retrieves a box with balls and magnetic bars in it, which can be put together into different shapes. "Here, take a ball, Frau Rosmarie, and a bar". Gerda and Frau Rosmarie play 'Magnetic World'. "Or we yodel", says Gerda Pieruch.

Rosmarie Frau is in the mood to demonstrate her singing skills: "Vo Luzärn gäge Wäggis zue, joloholidu…" Gerda brings out a pile of books. "Muttergatte abzugeben", a cheerful novel: "We've read all of this once. Rosmarie Frei reads a lot", she says, almost proud as you would be of a child.

She opens a book and holds it out to Rosmarie Frei, who straight away says with a clear voice: "Don't just choose the straight roads. Follow ways which nobody else has travelled. Then you leave behind footprints, not just sand". Gerda continues to turn the pages like a conductor at a concert.

On Sundays they go to Seon, to the Catholic Church. At 9.30 a shuttle bus picks up the Catholics from the area. The son calls this the 'Holy bus'.  Sometimes they stay behind after the service for a drinks reception.  "Cheers!", says Rosemary Frei and lifts her glass of water. "Cheers!' Gerda replies.

After the service there is a walk, and when Peter is there, a meal awaits them when they return home. "Just like in a hotel", remarks Gerda. A working day lasts until approximately quarter to ten. Until recently both of them were awake until 11pm. «Wetten, dass...» the TV show, was on the television.

Like a model. Like a child.

Gerda Pieruch's husband was a carpenter. She herself has qualifications and worked for 35 years in a tank factory. At 55 they both entered early retirement. As a rule both the husband and wife work in Poland but in spite of that the wages are not enough to live off. That's why many go abroad. The average wage in Poland equates to 400 Euros a month. "The prices are rising", says Gerda, "We go to Germany to buy sugar". A kilo costs 6 zloty in Poland, 50 cents in Germany. That is approximately 2 zloty. The Pieruch couple has a house, a garden, a dog, rabbit and chickens. "My husband keeps himself busy while I'm away. He always says that when I come back with money we can live a bit more freely", she says. "We have renovated the house and added an extension".

However, her husband is already over 70 and Gerda is not much younger. Their daughter, who works as a doctor in Germany, says more and more often "You can't leave Dad alone forever". Gerda says "in that case we'll take Rosmarie with us", while she lists the beauties of Poland: the upper Tatra, Śniardwy lake, the dunes and spits of the sea.

In Boniswil, the town where the Frei's live, there is Lake Halwil, the Lenzburg Castle on the periphery, a pallet logistics company and a snipe in the town coat of arms. "Some find it perhaps a little boring here. But it doesn't bother me. I myself come from a village", says Gerda. She knows all the senior citizens there. Everybody knows who she is and why she is here. "Drink some coffee, eat some cake". It's like in a Polish village.

As Rosmarie poses for the photographer, Gerda says to her: "You're like a model!". Then she puts on her scarf and jacket for the evening walk. Just like a child.

A stair lift has been installed and loops all around the house. But Rosmarie Frei walks slowly down the steps on Gerda Pieruch's arm and then along the streets, which after four years in Boniswil she knows well. Like the back of her hand. You can rely on habits and customs here.

Interview: "The interpersonal has been forgotten"

The need for private solutions for elderly care is increasing as the public services decrease. The reverse would be desirable, says the sociologist Sarah Schilliger, who is currently undergoing research about these 'Senio-Pairs'.

Why has 24-hour-care experienced a boom?

To start with, there are more and more elderly people. They want to remain in the home as long as possible and at the same time their own family is not always available. This is the social background. The patients prefer to remain out of the hospital environment and the solution is for care to take place at home. Also mobility has been made easier through the eastward expansion of the EU. All of this leads to the Home Care Model.

The carers, often Polish, east German or Slovakian women - live for weeks in a strange household. How is it for them?

Whenever I speak with them they usually present everything in a positive way. The devotion of these women has partly something to do with their catholic faith. I once paid a visit to one of the Polish carers. She had had to do a pile of washing as the elderly lady had diahorrea. She cried quite a lot and said to me "I'm never free and I feel at my limit". However, these women see themselves often not as migrants, but as a guest in a family or, in any case, as help.

An important point seems to be the definition of the working hours.

I asked the agencies and they almost all say the same. Direct assistance like housework counts as work. But going for a walk with somebody who is in a wheelchair is not counted as work. Even the agencies idealise the working relationship and represent it as a perfect family. A carer talked to me genuinely about her 'mama' and was referring to the patient. It is true to say many question marks remain.

The wish for care and assistance in your own four walls is understandable. Would there be ways for all parties to agree?

I find it legitimate that people want to stay at home as long as possible. However the care assistants need improved work conditions - with a minimum wage, regulated working hours, relief services, and opportunities for further education. For this to happen, an expansion in public financing is necessary. At the moment the opposite is happening. The healthcare sector is degraded and interpersonal relations are forgotten about.

Sarag Schilliger is an assistant at the Institute for Sociology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, and is writing her dissertation on "Care and migration. East European circular migrants in private households in need of care" ["Osteuropaische Pendelmigrantinnen in Privathaushalten von Pflegebeduerftigen"].

Translated by Amy Fox

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