In March, when the world began to shift on its axis as COVID-19 hit, Rachel Stewart had no idea her life would shift, too. Neither did Cecilia Huber or Janie Kasse. It’s fair to say none of us knew how much our lives would change, yet these three women embarked on journeys into the world of caregiving for older adults and it changed their perspectives.
Stewart, 24, a graphic design intern in Nashville, had started life there after graduating from Lipscomb University. She had an apartment, friends and a future in her field of study.
Within 36 hours of the hard realization of COVID-19’s impact and the Canadian border closing, the London, Ontario native had to pack up everything she could fit into her car and make the long drive home. Her family lived there, her grandmother was in assisted living and Stewart was uncertain how her work visa would last amidst a global pandemic.
“At first I was really mad about it. I had such mixed feelings. I felt like everything I had built, everything I’d worked for the past five years, I felt like it just got tossed out the window,” she said.
Little did Stewart know that within six weeks, she’d find a new purpose as a PSW (Personal Support Worker) brightening the days of residents in Craigwiel Gardens, a long-term care community in Alisa Craig, Ontario. And even more important, she’d be the only one in her family to be able to see her grandmother there every day during her shifts.
Lifting Spirits: Theirs and Her Own
Meanwhile, Cecilia Huber, 19, had nearly finished her freshman year at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Neb., when she found herself back home in Omaha as her college closed doors and put her classes online.
She had similar feelings of discomfort at the disruption. “I had a big group of friends. We were in the same dorm together, so I like literally saw them every day,” Huber said.
While finishing her online classes, Huber also wanted a job. Though she’d normally worked at a restaurant during her time outside of school, that wasn’t an option, as many restaurants had closed during the pandemic. She talked it over with her father, Jeff Huber, CEO of Home Instead, a global in-home elder care service.
He suggested his daughter might try being a caregiver. She had never worked in a job like that before, but was willing to give it a try.
“I’ve never really seen myself in that position, working with older people, but then I gave it more thought. I’m pretty close to my grandparents and I love working with people,” Huber said.
“That energy, just to have someone younger, lifts their spirits a little higher.”
She went through Home Instead training and learned how to provide non-medical care to older adults. Then, Huber became a caregiver to several Home Instead clients with whom she shared interests. Typically, the company’s caregivers are older adults themselves so, Huber said, her presence being a young caregiver was a breath of fresh air.
“That energy, just to have someone younger, lifts their spirits a little higher,” she said. Her spirits were lifted as well; the happiness was mutual.
Huber, who is majoring in social work, felt like her summer job certainly brought her a new perspective. She has hopes of helping adolescents later in life as a social worker, but realizes “there’s a need for the elderly, too.”
Helping Her Mom and Others
Though Janie Kasse, 44, already worked two jobs, she took on a third as a hospitality aide at Windsor Ridge (Assisted Living) in Jeffersonville, Ind. when she learned her mom — a long-time resident there — had begun to decline emotionally.
Kasse, who is very close to her mother, has documented her story on Instagram for the past few years. Her mom, who is 66, suffered a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) from a car accident in 1976 and has limited mental capacity.
A call [about her mother’s condition] from the assisted living administrator, Melissa Prenatt, was all it took to propel Kasse into action. Because she couldn’t volunteer there due to COVID-19 restrictions, the only way to make a difference was to become an employee.
“My mom is so social. She talks to everybody; she walks those halls! Getting her to understand that she had to stay in her room was difficult. Even within a couple of days [of lockdown], her temperament changed, her mood changed. You could just see it on her face that she had no idea what was happening,” Kasse said.
Kasse got trained and began showing up for her part-time shift by mid-March. Her job entails whatever is needed, from delivering meals to residents to playing board games with them to providing the uplifting smiles and cheerful companionship.
For Kasse, though it created a 65-hour work week in combination with her other jobs, she says it’s been absolutely worth it to see the residents’ moods lighten, especially her mom’s.
“I would love to have as many Janies as people would send me. When they come in, their focus is ‘what needs to be done, what can I do to help your facility stay afloat?'”
Kasse said, “For me, it doesn’t matter what my day has been like — if I’ve had a rough day at my other two jobs — when I get in there I am a bubble of personality and I do that intentionally.”
As an administrator, Prenatt said, hiring Kasse “just made sense.” With an already small staff and added stress to their workload due to COVID-19, they needed extra sets of hands.
“We had such a tremendous workload, it was very difficult. On top of the additional duties we had, we also had the residents’ adjustment (to COVID-19 restrictions),” Prenatt said.
She also noted that it was already difficult to hire staff because of a lack of applicants. They really needed extra help. To be able to have someone who can assist with the day-to-day simple requests, like helping residents access telehealth and answering non-medical calls, has been invaluable.
“I would love to have as many Janies as people would send me. When they come in, their focus is ‘What needs to be done, what can I do to help your facility stay afloat?’” Prenatt said. She added that it’s so helpful to have non-medical staff working alongside regular staff, because they’re task-driven and efficient in their short shifts.
A Newfound Compassion
Kasse has gotten attention from all over the country from people who admire her willingness to step into a care position during COVID-19 in order to make the lives of older people happier. She was even featured on Good Morning America.
And Stewart, in a recent LinkedIn post about her “new job,” drew the admiration of more than 63,000 people. That in itself surprised her, and she has not regretted her decision at all.
“I’m a human being who loves to create, but also care for others.”
Though Huber and Stewart are uncertain whether their COVID-19 work changes the trajectory of their career paths, they agree it’s made a meaningful difference in their lives, being caregivers to older adults during the pandemic. They’ve gained an appreciation for staff, found strength in compassionate acts and have grown emotionally.
For Jeff Huber, the instances of a younger generation stepping into the world of caring for older adults adds so much opportunity for newfound compassion.
“Even for those who choose another career path, the real-life experiences gained from caregiving could prove invaluable to future employers. Caregiving requires empathy, which nourishes your emotional intelligence (EQ), an increasingly important quality for business leaders across industries,” he said. “I’d love to see more young people join our ranks to get that experience. And Cecilia has become an ambassador as well.”
Whether stepping outside a regular career or derailing from original plans, the global pandemic has created positives for many in senior living, with non-traditional employees uncovering new possibilities.
Stewart said, “I took this job to help instead of just sitting at home feeling bad for my displaced, unemployed self. I am not just a graphic designer. I’m a human being who loves to create, but also care for others.”
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