The frontline workers who give their all

In January 2016, I received a call from my niece Kristy that my mother, Dolores Catherine Newman, was not doing well. My then-86-year-old mom had lived independently for several years in Hermet, California. Kristy was the only remaining relative residing in southern California and visited her on a regular basis.

Mom was just not the same, according to Kristy. Unable to feed her cat, not eating regularly herself, and in bed most of the day; this was not the flu. At her urging, I left my home in Columbus, Ohio to see for myself.

Kristy’s concerns about mom’s health were justified. After spending four to five days there, including a consultation with her physician, we loaded up her personal belongings for shipment to Columbus and began the four-day drive across the country. It was Jan. 17, 2016.

Mom would spend the next four years at Columbus Alzheimer’s Care Center close to where I lived. I visited her on a weekly basis, occasionally bringing her home for a Saturday or Sunday, where she would smoke a cigarette (sometimes two) and enjoy a beer on the deck.

During this period, I witnessed the ravages of Alzheimer’s and dementia suffered by residents of CACC. Although they suffered from many physical and mental disabilities, like my mom, it was their lost independence that they felt most acutely. They were living in a strange place without understanding why they were there.

During this period, I came to know the people who cared for them. Administrators, doctors, nurses, CNAs, physical therapists, kitchen staff, maintenance staff and others, including numerous volunteers. I remember asking myself not long after my mom arrived, “How do they do it? How do they bear the pain, infirmity and death all around them? Every day.” I could never imagine being able to do that work. But they did. And they did it well, treating my mother with respect, dignity and love during her time with them.

I retired and moved to Saranac Lake, New York in July 2019. My efforts to relocate my mom began soon thereafter, but it was not until July 2020 that it finally happened. In the middle of a still-growing coronavirus pandemic and before vaccines had been developed, I received a call from Mercy Living Center in Tupper Lake. “Are you still interested in having your mother move here?”

On July 20, 2020, we drove the 650-plus miles to Columbus, Ohio to bring mom back to the North Country. The next morning, staff at CACC wheeled mom out to the car (at this point in the pandemic, we were not allowed to enter the facility) and we all shared a tearful goodbye. Two days later, on Wednesday, July 22, mom was admitted to Mercy Living Center.

I visited my mother every week during her time at Mercy Living Center. Over the last year, I visited more frequently, on average twice a week. Different days of the week. Various times of day. I was there often enough to gain a fair understanding of the quality of her care. What I saw was my mother and other residents treated compassionately by a dedicated staff doing an incredibly difficult job.

I am aware of the concerns and complaints expressed by families before and during the last year as Mercy transitioned to new ownership and is now Tupper Lake Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation. I have heard staff express frustration for several reasons. I have no reason to doubt the legitimacy of concerned expressed by family or staff. Some employees left, some left and returned, and some stayed even as new staff came on board. Staffing levels are a recurring topic for care centers across the country. Never enough.

But the purpose of this letter is not to defend perceived or real shortcomings of any of the places my mother has resided. All of them operate in a difficult environment. All care for our loved ones, as well as people who have been forgotten by friends and family, where frontline staff members have become their family.

This is a thank you letter. I am grateful to Mercy Living Center Administrator Madaline Toliver and her successor, Chris Esola with Tupper Lake Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, who accepted the challenge of leading these organizations.

But my heart will always belong to the frontline staff caring for my mother “Cathy,” who passed away peacefully on March 26, 2024. They are my heroes. They are the ones who cared for her most intimate needs daily. They are the ones who showed up when most needed, even when they would have preferred not to. They are the ones who will forever hold a special place in my heart. I love them all.

I am reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago with my oldest daughter, Sarah. She was sharing her experiences as an intern on an organic farm in Blachly, Oregon. Blachly is a small town in the Coast Range roughly halfway between Eugene and the Pacific Ocean. At the end of a long day, she said, “Dad, this is the hardest work I have ever done. If you don’t love this work, you can’t do it. You won’t survive.” Sarah loved the work and successfully completed the internship. When I recall this conversation, I think of all who have cared for my mother these last eight years.

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Michael B. Glass lives in Saranac Lake.


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