At the age of 64, Sue Port from Wadhurst took a leap from a long career in agriculture to become a support worker for East Sussex County Council.
After attending her first job interview in nearly 40 years, Sue was offered a job in the one industry she said she’d never work in – finding reward and purpose in the process.
We spoke to Sue, now 67, about her experience of making a career change later in life and what she’d say to anyone considering doing the same.
Retiring from a long career in agriculture
Mother-of-two Sue comes from an agricultural background. Having studied at agricultural college between 1977 and 1980, she set up a business with her husband – first in farming cows and sheep, and later in garden machinery retail.
However, at the end of 2019, due to arthritis in her hands, Sue found herself having to retire from the business. She explains, “I had begun to suffer from arthritis in my hands – they’d become weaker, and to do the jobs I did, I needed a certain amount of strength.”
First job interview in nearly 40 years
Having had to retire from the family business, Sue began searching for a new job. And, considering her previous experience, she felt that a job in retail would suit her best.
Sue says, “I couldn’t really afford to retire completely, so I began searching for a new job. I really felt retail was where I was supposed to be because I’d done customer facing roles my whole life – but Tesco and John Lewis wouldn’t have me.”
But, in an unexpected turn of events, Sue interviewed for a role as a support worker in the Joint Community Rehabilitation (JCR) team at East Sussex County Council – despite being adamant that care was the one industry she didn’t want to work in.
Sue says, “I was just trawling through job websites and a support worker role came up. I thought, support work, that can’t be too difficult! I didn’t think it had anything to do with being a carer. But, I had no idea what I was getting into.
“I’d not had a job interview for nearly 40 years, so, as you’d expect, it was completely terrifying. But the interviewers were really nice. And I was so chuffed when I was offered the role that I more or less forgot to ask what the job actually entailed!
“Ironically, if you’d asked me five years ago, I would’ve said I don’t mind what I do as long as I don’t do care!”
However, Sue’s views on what it was like to work in care soon changed…
“It was so rewarding. I got home and I was absolutely buzzing”
In her role as a support worker with East Sussex County Council’s Joint Community Rehabilitation (JCR) team, Sue works with people who’ve come out of hospital and don’t have anyone to help them at home.
The team aims to help clients regain their confidence and independence, so they can begin doing things for themselves again, usually within three to four weeks.
Despite her previous apprehensions about the industry, Sue explains that it was during her training, on a trip to a nursing home, that her perspective entirely shifted.
She says, “There was a resident on the dementia ward who tended to get quite violent and throw stuff at carers. On this particular day, she was throwing stuff at everyone, telling them to go away – convinced that they were trying to kill her.
“Nothing seemed to be helping, so I asked if I could have a try. For some reason, she and I just clicked. I chatted to her and managed to calm her down. We got on like a house on fire and so for the rest of the day I was allowed to escort her around and take things to her.
“I thought, wow, that was so rewarding. I got home and I was absolutely buzzing.”
Ever since, Sue tells us that her favourite part of her role is the people she looks after.
She says, “The clients we look after are all so different. I just love chatting to them, as they’re all so interesting.
“Some of them have been in hospital for three or four months and have become completely institutionalised – being handed meds, food, and not being able to get out of bed until they’ve rung the bell. So, very often, many feel depressed, lacking in confidence, and are terrified of how they’ll adjust to life outside of the hospital.
“But it’s rewarding to say to them, ‘give yourself a chance and you’ll feel different soon’ – and sure enough, they do! Many of them are just so grateful that they’ve got people like us going in and just being there to help them.”
“Life experience can be really valuable”
According to the JCR team at East Sussex County Council, life experience, rather than relevant qualifications, is what helped Sue to secure her role as a support worker.
Sue explains that this includes her previous customer-facing roles and supporting her own elderly mother…
“I think the main thing I bring to this role is life skills. I’ve been out there in the world, I’ve travelled a bit, and done a variety of different roles within our company.
“Conversation is important in this role because it helps to take the client’s mind off of things. Put me in a room with lots of people and I’ll shrink into the floor, but put me on a one-to-one basis and I can pull the conversation around – I’m a people person.
“I also think I’m sometimes able to relate more to older people, because I’m nearer their age than a lot of the youngsters. I’ve also got my mother around, who I help to look after.
“That’s not to put young people off who come in and look after these people, because they do a brilliant job – but life experience can be really valuable.”
“One day I’ll be in that position and I hope that somebody will look after me”
For Sue, empathy and listening skills are some of the most important qualities for support workers. Interestingly, she also shared that her new role has helped to unearth qualities she previously didn’t think she had.
“You certainly need empathy”, Sue tells us, “which is interesting, because when I started I was known as somebody with not much empathy at all. I’m not quite sure where I’ve managed to find it from, but I do have real empathy for these people.
“I guess I feel as though I’m giving back to somebody – somebody who’s had a full life. One day I’ll be in that position, and I hope that somebody will look after me.
“You’ve got to be a good listener too. You need to listen to what the client says and not just go in and do what you think is best. A lot of clients also say that it’s good how we stand back and encourage them to try and do things themselves.”
A better work-life balance
Moving from a career in agriculture and retail, Sue explained that changing careers has provided her with a much better work-life balance.
She says, “When we were working for ourselves I’d start around 8am and sometimes not get home until around 8pm or 9pm – particularly in the summer when we were very busy.
“So when they said I’d be doing five six-hour shifts a week, the equivalent of 30 hours, I thought ‘that’s a doddle!’. Depending on my shift, I have half of my day to do what I like, and it just means I’m not rushing around so much.
As someone who enjoys having time to walk her two dogs, sing in a choir, breed horses for her daughter to compete on, and spend time with her family, Sue continues, “It’s given me a new lease of life. My husband says I’m so much happier – probably because I’m just not quite so tired all the time.”
Sue also mentioned that her improved work-life balance is largely down to the excellent support provided by her team, who are always on hand to help…
“I’ve got a whole team behind me, so if I’m ever not sure about something I can just ring up and ask them what to do. This is something that I’ve found quite difficult to get used to, because when you’re self-employed it’s all down to you.
“Everyone has always been so kind, even when I make mistakes.”
“I wish I’d done it earlier”
When asked what advice she’d give to other people considering a career change in later life, Sue encourages people to just go for it.
She says, “I didn’t move until I was in my 60s and I wish I’d done it earlier. What I’d say to anyone is that if you’ve got any doubts about what you’re doing and feel you could be doing something else, take the leap.
“I know a lot of people are afraid to change careers later in life, but there are positions out there. And certainly in the care industry, having more life skills and experience is invaluable. I’m one of the oldest working here, but I just really enjoy it.”
If you’re interested in finding out more about working for East Sussex County Council, head over to their showcase page on the Rest Less website. Or, you can browse roles that are currently available.
Are you feeling inspired by Sue’s story? Or do you have a story of your own that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.