ANITA Covington is a Queenslander through and through, a little bit Irish and Mercy to her bootstraps, and she’ll be celebrating all three this Christmas.
Born in the North Queensland sugar-cane town of Ingham, her father was Irish and earlier this year she won the Mercy Week Mission Award at Mater Hospital Brisbane.
Anita is not one for speaking out about winning the award though, insisting that she is only part of a team.
“Any award that comes my way, it’s only because I’m part of a great team,” she said.
Mercy Week Mission Award acknowledges staff who embody the Mater mission and values of mercy, dignity, care, commitment and quality.
Anita, a social worker, is Healthy Ageing co-ordinator at the Mater and her Mercy connection harks back to her days in Ingham when she was taught by the Sisters of Mercy at Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School.
Given her modesty about her award, it’s not likely she’ll be the one mentioning it when she catches up with family at Christmas.
But she’s looking forward to getting together.
Her immediate family is small – she has two brothers, and she and her husband Mark have no children – but her great-grandparents on her father’s side made sure she will always have plenty of relatives.
“My grandmother was one of 21 children so I have lots of cousins,” Anita said.
Her great-grandmother had her first child when she was in her early 20s and her 21 children included one set of twins.
After leaving Ireland, Anita’s grandmother lived in New York for a while before moving to Australia.
“They had this sort of family understanding that when they turned 17 the parents would buy them passage to either New York or to Australia, and so when you turned 17 you had to leave Ireland,” Anita said.
“So we have family in New York and family here.
“My paternal grandmother, she chose to go to New York and did very well; the family that all went to New York did very well.
“There were a lot of opportunities then in the early 20th century.
“The family that came to Australia were more labourers, so the situation between where you chose to go was very different for our family.
“So my grandmother did very well and decided to come to Australia to show off to her siblings how well she was doing, to wear all her finery, and she ended up staying here.
“She met my grandfather and fell in love and stayed.
“They had six children and my father was one of them.”
Anita’s family moved from Ingham to Toowoomba where her maternal grandparents lived.
Her experience with her family is part of the reason she has dedicated herself to caring for older people.
She said she had a passion for health for the ageing way before she took on the Mater role.
“I grew up with my grandparents in our family home so we had that cross-generational experience which was lovely,” she said.
Another reason for her passion was her experience of living in Japan when her geophysicist husband worked on a project in alternative energy for the Japanese Government.
“There’s a very different way that people respond to the elderly (in Japan), and the respect is quite amazing on all levels of society and interaction,” Anita said.
“It’s just a really humbling experience, being part of that.”
Even when she studied social work she chose aged care as one of her elective streams, “so I’ve always been really interested,” she said.
“And the Mater have a really delicate way of working with older people, and the fact that they employ us and our project is a really great thing – that they see that need,” Anita said.
“Our job description is to advocate for older people; I think that’s a very Mater thing – that it’s whatever somebody needs, that’s what we do.”
Anita said her team’s job was “to support older patients who are vulnerable to having poor health outcomes just by the very fact of being in a hospital, not because of the primary illness that brings them here”.
“I guess what I love about social work is that I just love stories and people’s stories and the situation of people,” she said.
“And working with older people it’s such a privileged opportunity to hear a life story. It’s a really valued part of our day-to-day.”
An important part of Anita’s role is to advocate on behalf of elderly patients.
She said areas such as children’s health and cancer care tended to fare well in terms of government resources and public sentiment “whereas with the older people, what we’ve seen over the last decade is a real discourse of burden”.
“I think people are worrying about the ageing population and how we’re going to manage it, … so that older people are also now carrying that discourse which is a very difficult thing,” Anita said.
“I think it’s important to target workers who are really understanding of that discourse, and that older people who arrive at the Mater are here because they are unwell not because they are a burden on society.
“It’s a really privileged thing to be able to support politically, too, an understanding of their situation and why they’re here.
“Part of our role is to mentor the ward and other people who are engaging with them and try and break down a little bit of that political speak that goes around.
“You have to have a passion for the very person-centred commitment to what we do.”
Reflecting on why she views it a privilege to be working at the Mater with the Sisters of Mercy connections, Anita said, “it comes from all sorts of directions”.
“My paternal family is Irish, and our family story is really important to me – the fact that they all had to leave their country (where Catherine McAuley founded the Mercies),” she said.
“When my father died we found this song that was part of the funeral and it’s this beautiful folk song and the words describe that the one good thing about dying is that you can return to Ireland, and so that’s …”
Tears come and Anita apologises, saying “I’m sad still at the loss of my folks after many years”.
“But that holds deep in our family – that we grew up in Australia because they couldn’t stay in their own country …,” she said.
“And I guess because Catherine McAuley had that similar experience (of Ireland during tough times).”