Photo by Susan Olasky

A caregiver's lifestyle

Lifestyle/Technology | Patients are family to health aide Gwen Dickson

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

"Ok, Miss Ida. I'm going to roll you over . . . I'm going to fix your hair now . . . Your socks got to match." Common words, uttered in gentle tones, but the situation-the preparation of my mother-in-law's body for the arrival of the undertaker-etched the moment in my memory and captured Gwen Dickson's approach to her job as a health aide to the elderly.

For more than two years Gwen, who will be 60 next year, cared for Ida Olasky as she turned 89, then 90. Ida at first was stubborn and didn't understand why she needed an aide. Gwen, caregiver and guard dog, endured Ida's wrath. She also served as advocate, making sure that Miss Ida's dementia didn't keep her from getting what she needed from the nursing home's professional staff.

Gwen learned the occupation from her mother, who still works as a health aide even though she'll be 80 next year. When her mom moved to Texas, Gwen stayed in California where she worked in the same restaurant for 21 years. She worked seven days a week, knew her customers by name, and knew what they wanted to order. But things weren't good at home: "I was going through a bad marriage. . . . I was getting beat up, I almost got killed."

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Her mother and sister, also a health aide, urged Gwen to take up the family business. "I asked the Lord to give me a sign or make me a way. . . . Finally I just packed up and came." When she left her restaurant job "my boss cried. She didn't want me to go." That was three years ago.

Gwen trained to be a certified nursing assistant (CNA): "My mother sent me to school and I started from there." After a year at one facility she learned the downsides of the profession-she was overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated. The facility was so understaffed that Gwen often cared for more than 30 patients by herself. So she changed nursing homes.

To make ends meet, Gwen decided to take on a private patient, Ida, for 6½ hours each day and continue to work her day job: "I'm single and I just got a place. I had bills. . . . I sometimes work two shifts there and then here." Her supervisors noticed her "old school" work ethic and promoted her: "They have me training the new CNAs coming in." She also interviews all of the new residents and families to determine their likes and dislikes.

Gwen says she learned the old school ways from her mom: "No shortcuts, just do it right. Talk to the residents nice. Address them by name, not by 'baby' or 'papa,' and make sure they always dress nice. Say 'yes ma'am, no ma'am.'" Her mother summed up the rules this way: "Treat 'em like you would someone in your family."

We saw those maxims in practice: When Ida's clothes came back from the laundry, Gwen would hang outfits together on hangers, matching tops with slacks, so that the less conscientious staff would know how to dress Ida. Gwen made sure Ida went to the beauty parlor every Friday and had her nails done every other week. She was single-minded in getting her patient whatever care she needed-and she always talked to her respectfully.

When asked about the difficulties of her jobs, Gwen mentions that some of her patients kick her or hit her. She tells of "male residents who grab the back of me everyday. One resident grabbed me between the legs. . . . They're always grabbing my breasts." But she focuses on the good: "Falling in love and seeing them pass on. It's hard to let go. . . . I love my job. I love these people."

Soap skills

Homestead Blessings is a series of how-to DVDs featuring the West ladies-a mom and three daughters-demonstrating old-fashioned homemaking skills: candle making, bread baking, and soap making. The DVDs are professionally produced and set in a homey kitchen, where the ladies demonstrate each skill. The soap-making video included a brief demonstration of the way pioneer women would have made soap outside in a kettle over an open fire. The DVDs are available through Franklin Springs Family Media, which makes "original films that provide a picture of the exciting reformation that's happening in families across the country."

Charting a course

Would a smiley face on a chart help you keep your New Year's resolutions? If so the web has a number of websites that will help you keep track of your progress. I registered at dontbreakthechain.com and now have a gadget on my iGoogle page that shows a calendar with an x on Jan. 1 and this encouraging sentence: "You've been getting things done for 1 day straight."

I also registered for joesgoals.com, a website that allows you to set positive goals and list negative habits you're trying to fight. Positive goals are signified by yellow smiley faces, negative ones by gray frownies. Each day you perform your goals you mark with a check. The site will publish reports to track your progress.

For more ideas on how to track your resolutions, visit lifehacker.com/

Forget the toothbrush?

When packing up for travel, I invariably forget something that would have made the trip better had I thought more carefully about what I might need. Dontforgetyourtoothbrush.com is a website designed to help travelers plan for their trips. After an easy, free registration, the site allows members to browse a comprehensive pre-trip checklist of items to take and to take care of before you go. After "ticking off" (the website is British) those items that pertain to a particular trip, you can print out a customized list. For more travel websites, visit dumblittleman.com/2008/12/10-awesome-websites-to-check-before-you.html.

Busy and happy

What do happy people do all day? They read, socialize, and go to church-but they do not watch TV. That's according to a study published in the December issue of Social Indicators Research. One of the study's co-authors, University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson, said, "TV doesn't really seem to satisfy people over the long haul the way that social involvement or reading a newspaper does. . . . The data suggest to us that the TV habit may offer short-run pleasure at the expense of long-term malaise." The study also found that happy people are busier than unhappy people-but unhappy people feel more rushed for time.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.


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