Who cares

5th November 2003, Comments 0 comments

The shocking death toll of the summer heat wave in France has made care of the elderly a national priority. Brett Kline discovers the home help system largely depends on a workforce of poorly-paid African women.

Candidates who complete the three-month training course at the Afpia Centre in eastern Paris are almost certain of finding a job — and very quickly. The centre trains people to become careworkers for elderly people living at home, a job called "auxiliaire de vie" in French.

Nearly all the students are women and mostly from French-speaking black Africa, along with a few from northern Africa.

15,000 people died in the summer heat wave, 70 percent of them aged over 75

Director Marie-Thérèse Minyem, a dynamic 40-something from Cameroon and a resident of France for 22 years, says she is bridging two urgent social needs and two very different cultures.

"We are taking care of elderly French people who have no families or whose families are not there for them for whatever reason, and we find work for young African women who otherwise have real trouble integrating into French society," said Minyem. "And sometimes I just don't have enough women to place."

Agnès Vidalie, director of human resources at the Atmosphere Agency, which specialises in placing home care workers, said African women were omnipresent on the market.

"Eighty to 85 percent of the women we place are Africans," she said. "The others are eastern Europeans, Korean and central and south Americans."

 There were rarely any French candidates, she said: "In France, this is not a highly esteemed field of work." Pay is at only the minimum wage of EUR 7.19 an hour.

"The Africans have a sense of physical contact, plus a strong sense of family," she added. "It is a cultural thing."

"But the main problem in this field is that people have little or no training."

At the Afpia Centre a three-month training course in helping the elderly costs EUR 1,205 for a month in the classroom, a month full-time in a nursing home and a final month back in school. Training also includes Saturday morning French language classes.

The role played by the centre and others like it in France was thrown into the spotlight by the heat wave this summer that blasted much of Europe, sending temperatures soaring in Paris, resulting in the deaths of up to 15,000 people, 70 percent of them aged over 75.

So since the beginning of October, director Minyem has been holding two classes of 15 students a day in the former factory building in an eastern Paris housing the centre — double the original number when it opened two years ago.

"An association called in July and took the entire class finishing the home training," Minyem said, "and in September there were a lot of calls."

The death toll in France was by far the worst in Europe, setting off a wave of soul-searching across the country.

"This summer was horrible," said Sophie, from the Côte d'Ivoire. "It motivated me to sign up for this class, because I can be of help to an elderly person and also find work."

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