Executive Director Laurie Hilsgen shares how becoming a carer “overnight” led her to set up our service.
Laurie organised and participated on Walk for Wellbeing in 2016.
Mycare is all about connecting people with people – and the people behind it? They know just what you’re going through. Mycare co-founder Laurie Hilsgen was an IT and e-commerce journalist and author who had just started a publishing company when her partner George suffered a devastating stroke. Life would never be the same again.
Aged 32, Laurie had no experience of caring for someone who needed around-the-clock care. “You jump into caring,” she says. Five years on, feeling exhausted and isolated, she began to ask what support was available. In 1990s New Zealand, the answer was: not a lot.
Casting her net wider, she found a mentor in Baroness Jill Pitkeathley, then CEO of Carers UK. In 1995, with the help of Jill and Dorothy McCaw, a Milton woman whose husband had also had a stroke and who was a “ferocious champion in Otago for older people and carers”, Laurie started not-for-profit Carers NZ, to provide support for others like them.
Small steps, big gains
“I self-funded it for almost five years, and Jill was a wonderful motivator,” says Laurie. “She had built up the caring cause in the UK and said if she was able to do it there, I could do it here. It was daunting – I had no experience of government apart from my political science degree, and no health/disability sector experience. I’ve learned you can achieve big things if you believe in what you’re doing, and make a start.
“Dorothy and I didn’t meet in person for three years, but we spoke on the phone every day,” says Laurie of her late co-founder. “I think of her as my guardian angel. When I have to make tough decisions or to express a firm point of view, I hear her voice in my head. She was fearless and loved to go head to head with politicians. Bill English was her constituency MP and as Health Minister provided Carers NZ’s first funding, to build the carer network nationwide.
“Once the two of us got started, a lot of other carers came out of the woodwork,” says Laurie. Today Carers NZ is a network of more than 50,000. Carers NZ went on to establish the Carers Alliance NZ of 45 national not for profits in 2005. Laurie and her now partner Chris Mathews also produce Family Care magazine since 2008.
Mycare’s for you
Early in this journey, knowing that “whatever your economic circumstances or where you live, you still have to find someone to do the helping, and that isn’t easy”, Laurie had looked into setting up a national database of care workers. Finally, in 2014, she and Chris joined forces with Mark Jeffries and Rob Stewart to create Mycare.
“People need to find each other, and when you’re tired and your life is already stressful, you resent having to hunt. We knew there was an important gap in New Zealand to link these people to make it easy.
“The beauty of Mycare is that it connects everyone and gives them choice. Families have the tools to find, manage and pay for home-based help all in one place. It takes care of the planning and paperwork, so you can focus on the relationships. A feature I love is the Support Circle, where you’re able to keep your whole family connected. And you can make choices as your needs change and find the right people with the right skills.
“Often as neighbours, whanau, employers, communities, we want to help those around us who are frail, ill, dying or experiencing trauma. Mycare is also a way to help in tough times; you can offer paid or voluntary help, or make sure people who need support know about Mycare.”
Help at hand
With an official statistic of more than 420,000 carers in Aotearoa (a figure Laurie believes to be closer to one million), and our elderly population ever expanding, both Carers NZ and Mycare are catering to a real need. Last year, the Ministry of Health agreed to fund Mycare’s service free to people seeking care for people under 65 with a disability.
“The very first user of Mycare was a father whose daughter has disabilities due to a life-limiting condition,” says Laurie. “They had secured government funding so she could continue living at home and he was also contributing to her care costs. But they still needed to find people to support her. It seemed overwhelming: where to look for just the right workers who could provide the practical care she needed but whose company she would also enjoy?
“With Mycare, they found several workers almost straightaway and have recruited others since. They know that whenever they need to find some helping hands, they can log in and contact available people in their area. Mycare has removed some of the strain.”
Onwards & upwards
Laurie never intended for her life’s work to involve building a charity or focus on family caregiving, but she’s as passionate today about the need for recognising and supporting carers as she was when she was 32 and needed help herself. “When life gives you lemons, you need tools to make good lemonade. I love bringing my experience to creating tools that make life easier for others. I also love being part of providing new income opportunities for support workers.
“I’m very proud of Mycare because I know how much people need to be able to find help easily and manage all the different pieces of their lives. If we can make it easier, they will be less stressed and have time to focus on what’s important. I know Mycare makes a difference, and it’ll just get better and better.”