Bulgaria needed someone to set the bar high in the health and social care so that there was a place for everyone else to aim

The story of Teodora Kortakova, senior resident care specialist at Blocks Senior Living

From the psychology and restaurant business in Bulgaria to care assistant and stylist in England, today Teodora Kortakova is a senior resident care specialist at Blocks Senior Living. As rich as this experience may sound, she is only 32 years old and works what she calls “inner need”. The need to make someone’s life a little easier, a little happier, and more meaningful. Telling us about his life path, we were once again convinced that Blocks stands out, and Blocks is different from everything we know so far, because our team is a team with a mission and a higher goal.

That is why we decided, in addition to the stories of our residents, to tell you the stories of our assistants, our “helper wheel”, as Teddy herself called them, to open another door to ourselves, to campus, and show some more way of empathy, care and unconditional love in adult care. Meet Teddy – the personification of all of the above, a motivator and a 100 per cent ram for whom there is no unattainable goal.

1. We recently read something interesting – if you don’t introduce yourself to your profession and precisely what you do every day – who is Teodora Kortakova? Tell me about yourself.

I grew up in a small town, in Peshtera, in a happy and close-knit family, with unconditionally accepting and supportive parents. I start with this because I take it as great luck, and in general, I think I was born under a lucky star – no matter how difficult moments I had, at the age of 32, I feel sincere gratitude for everything! I would say for myself that I am a happy person!

2. What did you graduate from university?

I graduated in Psychology at the Southwest University in Blagoevgrad. And my master’s degree is “Labor and Organizational Psychology” at Sofia University. I have never worked in my field officially for several reasons. The main thing is that I am too emotional – I have not yet become wiser enough to accept some traits in people they do not want to change. I liked psychology because it was the only thing I could study. I did not imagine myself in any economic specialty, for example (as everyone advised me then) – I imagined explaining to a professor of higher mathematics how 2 and 2 are not always 4. Sometimes it is 22 – very often even… Psychology gave me a lot. I am a seeker, analyzing myself and the people and situations around me. I have always wondered why someone reacts in a certain way, why they make a specific choice if you will, and why some people recover from incurable diseases and others do not. I have always searched, and I always knew that the reason lies inside us – where psychology leads.

3. What is your position on the Blocks campus? How is your working day?

A senior resident care specialist writes on the sign here (laughs), but it doesn’t matter within a day. If I have to describe it in one word – it is dynamic. I don’t have a daily schedule. Every day my duties are the same, but the situations are different. Even a conversation with some residents can lead to a specific situation that needs to be resolved. Or a discussion with some of the assistants – in addition to organizing their work, I try to motivate them. To give the maximum of themselves and to feel good.

4. Has the education of a psychologist helped you? Does it play a key role in your work now?

Every day, each of us here is a psychologist. We have the closest contact with the residents, spend the most time with them, and perceive ourselves as a small family. To take care of their physical, emotional, mental and psychological health, you have to be a psychologist and show empathy, give love, and have insane patience. With the highest goal we have set – to help people, I succeed in work, but, look, life is a little more complicated.

5. You volunteered at the Medical Center for Children with Developmental Disabilities for some time. Tell us more.

This was my first meeting with people with special needs. There were children in the medical center with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome – my role was to communicate with them. When I first saw such people and children mostly – I wanted to do something, to make them smile, and I was a little stressed from the initial contact, which I think is quite normal. But, I will not forget, then the director of the center told me: “Wherever you go, no matter what people you meet with a deficit or problem, if you feel sorry for them, it is better not to work with them, if your goal is to help them and make their lives a little happier, then you will be welcome everywhere. This helped me to break the compassion in myself, the feeling of pain, of resentment at how exactly this could happen – it just evaporated. At one point, I took on the role of an “auxiliary wheel” that helps people make life easier. Subsequently, whatever work I did, I always needed to make the other person’s life at least a little happier, a little easier, especially for people in a specific condition. I believe that what you give comes back to you, and I don’t do it for that – I have an inner need. I dreamed that whatever I ever did, I would be able to satisfy this very need.

6. Is there a similarity between working with children and the elderly?

These are my two favourite age groups. Whether they have special needs, both adults and children have wisdom that everyone should learn from. They are impulsive, expressive, and there is no falsehood in them. Emotions are not hidden – they are real; they are pure! Children because they are not taught that emotions need to be controlled, and adults are wiser enough to know that emotions can be expressed sincerely but in the right way. It is much easier for me to be myself with these two groups, and I know that when I am myself, they accept me. Maybe that’s why I love them so much.

7. You have worked as a social assistant at the Grace Manor Care Center in the UK for almost a year and a half. How did it happen? Why did you choose this profession in England?

I had no idea what exactly the job was until then, and I had no idea how someone without any experience would take me, but I knew it had to happen. I’ve always made my decisions intuitively – they usually never have anything to do with logic, so maybe I’ve always had to explain why over the years, but not otherwise. I have already stopped doing it – there is no logic, but I feel it. Well, in England, I published my CVs online, as was customary, but, of course, no one called me. Then I decided to print out my CV, find the nearest nursing homes around the house I lived in, and go on site. It was strange for them – everything was happening online, but with my typical Bulgarian stubbornness, I went and submitted my biography. I got a call from one house the next day, and I already knew I was inside. Although it was a stressful 45-minute interview in English, I didn’t feel at all confident in my language, and I didn’t even remember exactly what I was answering the questions they were asking me. I only remember the end of the interview when I was asked, “Why should I hire you in front of all these top CVs of experienced Englishmen?”. Then I suddenly became very confident and said something that is true today – no matter what job I’ve done so far, I’ve always wanted to be one of the best, not just part of the staff, and I’ve always achieved that.” When I was asked this question, it was the thing that opened the way for me. And why I chose a nursing home – after 3 years of constant panic attacks at the university, caused by unjustified and constant fear of losing my loved ones, every death story affected me severely – I knew I had to face this fear to overcome it. It was a blessing to come to England. After my work at Center, I had a radically different vision and understanding of life and death.

8. What was your job at the Grace Manor Care Center like?

Very dynamic and varied work every day. The personal toilet, nutrition, occupation – comprehensive care for physical, emotional and mental health. There were quite severe cases of dementia and cancer. Some people were mentally disabled but paralyzed and needed special assistance.

9. Is there a difference between Bulgaria and the UK regarding this type of senior living care?

There is a difference … or at least there was (laughs). While working in England, I earned many additional certificates and qualifications as a social assistant. But when I returned to Bulgaria, I put them in a box and put them in a cupboard at home because I knew I wouldn’t need them. The media and acquaintances clearly described what the homes for the elderly in our country look like, and I knew that I would not allow myself to work in a place where there is inhuman treatment and lack of care. I already knew how it was done in England. I witnessed how love, care and mood are given daily. And in Bulgaria, the picture looked far different. When I came back here, it was also the period when my grandmother was in bed and later died at home, literally in my arms. During this period, for myself, I made the difference what it is like to be in a nursing home in England, how things are in Bulgaria – even if you are at home, I’m not just talking about the conditions in the centres. Grandma lay down and unlocked dementia in the same period was a nightmare for mom and dad. She knocked, sought attention, sometimes became aggressive – these are states in which you do not want to see your loved one. Then I realized the difference between the adults there and the adults here – and I thought that the choice of people in a similar situation in Bulgaria is either to place their loved one in a home where he probably will not receive adequate care, or to ruin himself by tearing between work, personal life and caring for your loved one. I am glad that, since there is already a place like Blocks, people are not faced with this difficult choice, because things here are radically different from what is considered normal.

Of course, the picture is never black and only white; there are problems in England. They also suffer from a lack of good staff. Some people are not for this type of humanitarian profession. They have no sense or desire to do it. I left for a similar reason – because our team was getting smaller and weaker. The staff, who had known their residents there for a long time, also began to leave. People from agencies started coming (in England there are agencies for social assistants, where you leave your CV and they call you. You can work in a different Center every day) – they did not know the residents and did not have an individual approach, they did not have an emotional connection with them. There were people who were ruder, unacceptable for this profession. But in England, people are protected by law. If you behave rudely, you can be immediately reported and disciplined. As for the conditions and base – it had everything you need, but it is not new, updated. If I have to be honest – it has nothing to do with Blocks, our living conditions are much better and at a much higher level.

10. Do you find a difference between residents here and in England and the attitude towards nursing homes?

The adults there are very open, friendly. It may sound very immodest, but I was one of their favourite assistants, so when it comes to the residents’ attitude towards us assistants or towards me (who am Bulgarian), there has never been a problem.

11. We often hear and read that the elderly themselves decide to stay in a nursing home in the West – as if they were going on vacation indefinitely. At the same time, this seems to continue to be perceived negatively in Bulgaria. What are your impressions? How are nursing homes viewed in England?

It is more common than in Bulgaria, yes. For example, a paralyzed woman in England moved into the centre on her own so as not to embarrass her son, who had to look after her. But any change in life, however natural and logical, brings great stress, especially this type of change. And these people needed a period of adaptation, and there was this feeling of abandonment for a certain period. But to be honest, it’s much more natural in England to spend the rest of your life in a nursing home, at least for socializing, because the company is essential for residents there – they won’t be locked in their room, prefer conversations, activities and the creation of a new environment. Something I feel in Blocks more and more. We will soon be one year away from the opening of Blocks. For this one year, I dare say that in our development in the field of adult care, we have not only caught up but also surpassed what I knew was being done abroad and in England in particular. Despite the situation imposed by COVID-19, we still managed to organize people’s daily lives, so we have activities every day – we do not stop searching, inventing to provide them with the life for which they are still here.

12. The Blocks is trying to introduce many innovative methods and activities in senior living, memory and rehabilitation, which are popular abroad, but almost not applied in our country. For example, music therapy in people with Alzheimer’s. Can you tell us about other such treatments or activities that are used?

We organize many different activities. I can call the help of occupational therapists innovative – the profession is trendy abroad, but it is becoming more and more necessary in our country. In our case, occupational therapists are successfully working to improve our residents’ quality of daily functioning. I give an example – if a person has tremor or limited mobility and cannot eat alone, occupational therapists work on adapting to the environment, training the resident’s skills, how to adapt and eat on their own. This is extremely important for the psyche – to show the person that he can handle himself, despite his condition. The idea is for our residents not to feel at a hotel or helpless but at home to be as independent as possible. Of course, we have many different activities every day, which are an innovation for Bulgaria in nursing homes. Assistants and occupational therapists and psychologists, and rehabilitators work with the residents. We have physical activity for everyone. Even with limited movements, we consider his condition and adjust the exercises to the possibilities. We have creative activities – drawing, writing, knitting, and cooking. Cooking is one of their favourite things. Some residents cook according to their recipes, and the assistants simply assist. It happens often, and the houses smell delicious – at home. We have activities that stimulate brain function – chess, quizzes, lego, and puzzles. Residents like to solve crossword puzzles, play countries and cities. Individual activities – conversation, hand massage, beauty treatment, anything but personal. This creates a specific connection. Social activities are also our favourites – music, dancing, playing various instruments. We are planning many more things – walks to Vitosha, theatre, children’s party in the houses (to mix the age groups here). We are not poor in terms of ideas and activities, as long as the situation allows it. We still have a lot to do.

13. Mentioning a hotel – do you think there is a similarity between the hotel business/tourism and senior living? Especially when we talk about Blocks and family-type houses?

The residents themselves say that they feel like in a five-star hotel here and never imagined that they could live in such a place. Our job is to make them feel good, cozy and pleasant, perhaps a remarkable similarity between the two industries.

14. How did you change from a social worker to a stylist in England? Did the industry want to change, did you need to do it?

Maybe something like burnout happened. I felt helpless. I worked many hours and took extra shifts to give more, which led to exhaustion. I knew it was time because I didn’t want to stay in England. I wanted to go home. Then I was advised if I was in England for another year to find a job that would unload me because fatigue and stress affected. Then I started a typically female career, in which I had the opportunity to develop my trade skills or master them because I am too sincere and cannot be convinced to sell something that I do not believe 100% (laughs). As the film unfolded, I submitted my CVs in many places and finally started at Karen Millen. When I decide on something, I don’t care if it’s acceptable or unacceptable to people. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone and can achieve my goal – I do.

15. We recently wrote an article about the “overheating” of the caregiver. Tell us more than first-person? Is it possible for a person to overheat when caring for the elderly, some of them with serious health problems?

The professions related to caring for people – nursing homes, centres for children with disabilities (health and social sphere) are the professions in which a person can overheat most easily and quickly. Responsibility and the fact that you work from the heart and put all your energy can not but lead to increased stress levels, and if you do not do something to reduce it – it is inevitable to fall into this hole. It happens imperceptibly because you do not have time to feel tired in the hectic daily life, full of tasks and commitments. But one day, the lack of energy becomes palpable, you have no desire for anything, you become apathetic. In England, it affected my body, my face, and my emotions, of course – you become depressed, irritable. All things that are not typical of normal behaviour.

16. What do you dream about?

My dream is very global (laughs). I want a psychosomatic centre, but very different from our acquaintances. Since England, I’ve been scribbling ideas for it on various leaflets, so I imagine it far from the city, preferably in a chateau or ranch. The centre will be aimed at people who suffer from anxiety disorders and depression, which collapse emotionally and cannot be rebuilt for one reason or another. Unfortunately, this is the other “pandemic” that is rampant among young and middle-aged people. That is why I think that innovation is also needed in this direction. The idea is to come to the psychosomatic centre for two or three months, away from all the factors that contributed to these breakdowns and have the opportunity to build a new vision, new patterns of behaviour, new goals – a new, more sustainable and happy person.

17. Relatives of our patients or residents describe Blocks as salvation (most often). How would you describe him as a person “inside”?

In Blocks, we learn a lot on the go, but we learn very quickly and take the right direction. We do not need much time to continue to grow where we need to. So for me, Blocks is the new thing that had to come in the health and social sphere. Bulgaria needed someone to set the bar high so that everyone else could aim. When the level is low, everyone in the industry tries to upgrade it, but with a little. However, Blocks set the bar very high, and I am happy because it turned out to be my salvation. Blocks gave me a chance to work in the field I want, with a standard that breaks the stereotypes and negative attitudes of people in Bulgaria to the health and social sphere.

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